Electronics, math, and FUN?

As can happen from time to time, I sometimes see something and have no obvious use for it, but decide anyway I have to have it. That happened when the Makey Makey first came out. As a teacher, I saw them and knew that I had to have one, so just for good measure I purchased ten. I thought about them for about five or six weeks before I came up with an idea when talking to one of my students (who has now graduated and is almost done with his aerospace engineering degree – time flies).

What we came up with was using the Makey Makeys to play a short game, but not the standard asdw type of game. Instead, we remapped the inputs as the digits zero through nine and enter. Once we had done that, we attached 12 wires to each Makey Makey (stripping 120 wires and plugging them in is a lot more work than you might think), glued the Makey Makeys into small boxes, and poked the wires out of the side of the boxes. A little hot glue and some zip ties made them pretty sturdy.

Now, the fun part is that the boxes simply had a bunch of wires coming out of them. The digit wires were all the same length and (when possible) the same color. We made the common ground wire a little longer, so it would be easier to identify, and the enter key a unique color. This was to make it easier to find them in the bunch. Once the setup with the Makey Makeys was done, and the day before these were scheduled to be used in activities with visiting students, I set to do some programming.

I decided on a simple PHP maze game. Why PHP? Mainly because it is easy and can be put on a server that anyone can reach. All they need to access the game is a web browser. No installing, no Java updates, and well, it’s the language I am most familiar with.

The maze consisted of a 6×6 HTML table grid, with white and black squares. You are able to travel along the white squares, while the black squares are barriers you have to go around. Now you might ask, what about the Makey Makeys, and why all the digits?

The maze is designed so you can move four directions – up, down, left, right (I know you are surprised by this.). The fun part happens when you solve math problems to move your piece along the maze. Above the maze there are four equations; one addition, one subtraction, one multiplication, and one division, with a text input box below them. The students have to first use the text box to determine which wire can be used for which number, then use the number pad they can create out of playdough and paper to enter the correct answers into the text box.

This is where the next twist comes in. We do not tell them which math function allows them to move in any direction! So, they have to use the scientific method or process of elimination, to figure out how to navigate around the maze.

Watching the students do this is quite rewarding. We typically do this with 3rd – 5th graders, and they get really excited to figure it out. I think that it is partly them being involved with the circuit, partly the challenge of figuring out what’s going on, and partly trying to make it to the end of the maze first.

This activity also gives students time to be creative. Allowing them to build their own number pad means that they can do what makes sense to them. Some students take the playdough and make ‘buttons’ on the table in an order they can understand, while others like to leave the wires hanging in air just ordered from zero to nine. One pair of students decided that they would represent the numbers by attaching a different size and shaped piece of playdough to the wires. I was skeptical, but they still finished the game.

I think the point where I really decided that the activity was worth the investment was when we asked the students if they wanted to continue onto the next activity (where they could draw pictures and enhance those with paper circuits using LED’s and copper tape) or try the maze game again, they all said they would rather play the maze game!

This activity is appealing because it lets students have control and utilize their creativity. It does not force them to use a number pad that an adult declared as the best way to enter numbers. And because the overall approach to an efficient solution of the maze is not strictly defined, the students have opportunities for true problem-solving.

The code is a little rough, but it works for how I introduce it, and the kids do not seem to mind that the ‘graphics’ are simply colored boxes on a HTML grid that could have been made 15 years ago. You can see a current version of the maze at: http://www.the-frozen-tundra.com/maze

maze-1Students from Spiller Elementary School in Wythe County, Virginia work with Makey Makey’s and the maze game.

maze-2An overhead view of students’ keyboard with playdough holding wires to the table as they are working to finish figuring out which wire is which.

maze-3Students work on navigating the maze after attaching playdough to their wires along with small pieces of paper to indicate which wire does what.

maze-4Two groups work to see who can complete their maze the fastest. In the foreground, they have poked the wires through a piece of paper to help organize them and indicate which one is which, while the group in the back has written the numbers into their playdough.

maze-5A A closeup of the high-tech Makey Makey glued into a cut in half box with wires coming out of the side.


A Makey Makey in the foreground with the maze game on the computer screen. Notice the high end graphics created for this game.

maze-7Students can use any way they understand to setup their number pad. This group chose to use different sized pieces of paper for numbers 5-9, and different sized pieces of playdough to represent numbers 0-4.