Making Music with Bananas: An Intro to Physical Pixels

Robotics are changing the world we live in--and the economy of Pittsburgh especially. No matter your age, there is a great way to learn about robotics and programming with these resources.

When you were four years old, chances are you pretended an empty cardboard box was a spaceship or a paper towel roll was a megaphone. And when you got a little older, you played air guitar on a broomstick or used your hairbrush as a microphone. What if, now that you’re an adult, you could teach students how to bring everyday objects to life?  With simple computer software and a circuit board, a piece of bread could become a video game controller or a stuffed animal could tell the temperature. Sounds absolutely bananas, right? It may seem outrageous but encouraging students to reimagine and recreate the world around them is one of the most important concepts to impart to a generation that is growing up in the digital age.

Physical pixels is a concept that blends computer programming, web content creation, robotics, electrical circuitry, gaming, and crafting to produce an object that interacts with the tangible world. With a pocket-sized piece of hardware, a USB cable, a computer, basic programming skills, and some creativity, students can quickly begin to transform everyday materials into something fantastic. Taking cues from the worldwide “maker movement,” the concept of bringing web content to life is as much fun as it is fundamental.

Dale Dougherty, the godfather of maker culture and creator of Make Magazine, remains a strong advocate of the “learn through doing” education model. He believes that allowing students to play, tinker, alter, and hack familiar objects introduces them to the idea that they have the power to change the world they live in. Dougherty was recently quoted in the online zine saying:

“When it comes to education, my mantra is it’s not what you know, it’s what you can do with what you know.”–Dale Dougherty, creator of Make Magazine

From Screen to Table: Bringing the Web to Life

Going from a technology consumer to creator begins with some basic knowledge of computer programming and a microcontroller (or circuit board) that’s about the size of your hand. Whether a preschool class is using the Hello Robo! kit from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center or a performance artist is fabricating interactive clothing with an Arduino Lilypad, the idea of breaking the barrier of the computer screen is the same. Both scenarios show how an idea can be conceptualized in a virtual space then be brought to life with tangible materials.

An entry-level project may involve using LED lights and a motion sensor to program a “robot” constructed from cardboard and tape to simply wave hello. This is an appropriate introduction to physical pixels for novice students who have limited programming and circuitry experience. One teacher in Connecticut encouraged his K-5 students to create their own version of the classic Operation board game using a program that he wrote in the Scratch programming language.  In 2012, the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh STEAM Project gave middle school students the opportunity to create a storyboard based on a special memory, then to create an interactive robot based on their experience.

After experimenting with physical pixels, most students will have a basic understanding of programming languages like Java, Scratch, Ruby, or Processing, plus an awareness of how microcontrollers and circuitry works. More advanced students may apply the physical pixels concept to more complex applications that incorporate creating computer programs that control real-life machines. With low-cost tools and a slew of free online reference materials, the only limits are your imagination!

Cultivating a Generation of Creators, One Popsicle Stick Robot at a Time

When it comes to physical pixels, there are many options for prefabricated kits. Focusing primarily on students in elementary through high school, these low-cost, all-inclusive kits are designed for both novice users and teachers. Each tool can be easily scaled to meet an array of curriculum requirements or be explored in a free-range learning environment such as the home, afterschool club, library, or community center.

MaKey MaKeyMakey Makey is a simple circuit board and robotics kit that turns anything it’s connected to into a touchpad that interacts with a computer. Promoting the idea that everyone is an inventor, it works with simple electrical circuitry and turns just about anything into a touchpad that interacts with a computer. Praised as an invention kit for beginners and experts, the device is essentially “plug-and-play” where all you’ll need in addition to the kit is a computer and your imagination. Children as young as seven can create devices that interact with the web everyday objects, like PlayDoh, vegetables, and graphite pencils. Read on about Makey Makey.


Arduino microcontroller boardArduino allows anyone to create interactive objects and environments, simplifying the process of working with microcontrollers for those with some prior knowledge of electronics and programming. Using a variety of sensors, lights, motors, and actuators—along with its own programming language—users can create objects that interact with their surroundings. Teachers and students can scale their projects from basic LED lights and games to advanced robot-building and “wearable” electronics. What’s most unique about Arduino is that it can operate wirelessly and “remember” programming instructions. Read on about Arduino.

Hummingbird circuit board from BirdBrain TechnologiesHummingbird is a no-experience-necessary robotics kit that combines simple robotic technology with the art of “making”. If you can glue it, paint it, mold it, fold it, or color it, then chances are you can animate it using Hummingbird. Focusing on the more imaginative and creative aspect of technology, the device allows students to communicate thoughts, feelings, and stories. Unlike many other teaching robots that are focused on competitive or repetitive tasks, Hummingbird encourages storytelling and creative expressive, making it a versatile tool that can be applied to many different learning environments and accommodates many different learning styles. Read on about Hummingbird.

Published September 11, 2013