Christmas in July

Christmas Tree:  Soft Circuits & Programming

Christmas Tree: Soft Circuits & Programming


The summer is flying by.  In-between saving democracy in Canada and battling to eradicate prejudice, ignorance, and bigotry via  Twitter 😉 , I’ve actually made quite a lot of headway through the Sew Electric book & kit.

Sew Electric book & kit

Sew Electric book & kit


If you need a recap, I blogged about my summer goal of exploring E-Textiles which combines the atoms of fabric with the bytes of coding through electrical circuitry.   I provided a first update where I sewed a pre-programmed microcontroller into a soft toy. (Click the link to see a short “vine” of it.)

“Programming” Fabric

This is my second update for the summer.  My goal for this second part of the summer was to learn how to program the micro-controller myself.  Pictured below is the Lilypad Arduino Simple Snap which is a micro-controller (small computer) for textiles.

Lilypad Arduino Simple Snap Microcontroller

Lilypad Arduino Simple Snap Microcontroller


The programming language is Arduino, which is an open-sourced platform.  It is the most popular programming platform (software and hardware) in the world for physical computing.

Physical computing, in the broadest sense, means building interactive physical systems by the use of software and hardware that can sense and respond to the analog world. (attr. Google)


I am NOT a Coder

I am not a coder.  Period.   There is some weird perception of myself floating around the Ed Tech community that I am some sort of rockstar computer programmer.  Wrong.  I chose “Coding in the Primary School” as a subject-matter for my Coetail graduation project and I’ve learned heaps along the way, and shared my learning via my blogging and tweeting.  I chose it because Coding is not my comfort zone.  I’d far rather be reading, writing, listening to music, playing my piano, viola (and other instruments), sewing, quilting.   I am not a science, math geek.  I am an artsy-fartsy humanities gal who loves what technology can bring to the Arts ;P~~~~~~~

A month or so ago, I was sharing my learning about how to teach and integrate coding in the primary curriculum and in middle school Design & Technology with a Swiss native.  He was hoping I would help by being a bit of  a “spokesperson” to prospective parents for a program he was starting. He was trying to compliment me by saying, “…and you look like a Coder too!”.  (Basically he was saying that I would be a good poster-child for the management of the program because of my “look”.)  I don’t know if it was my “Chineseness” or my “Canadienne-ness” but I just politely smiled a strained-smile back, even though there was angry white smoke pouring out of my ears. Exactly what about me “looks” like a coder?  ?  Because slanted eyes and yellow skin (eye roll)?  Ugh. Ugh.  Double ugh.   Honestly, visible minorities really hate being stereotyped, even if it is meant as a compliment.  I guess I also don’t look like CEO material, either.  ;P

Anyways—back to my original point—-I am not a coder!  So, trying to use a text-based coding language like Arduino was going to be a huge challenge.   During my graduation project, I had looked at the “20 Hours of Code Program” and Scratch Programming.  I finished the 20 Hour program, myself.  I ran an after school coding club for a year that covered the 20 Hours and Scratch.  They’re graphic based programming languages though!


Stage 19 Puzzle 6

Blockly: Graphics Based Programming

Arduino Programming

Arduino:  Text Based Programming


Arduino Programming is text-based

It was going to be a challenge for me to try text-based programming.   Happily, the Sew Electric book was VERY thorough in explaining each line of the coding and what it meant.  In fact, there were places (especially at the end of the book when she covered arrays) where it was a bit too thorough for newbies.   It was a good thing that I had prior-learning with the graphics-based coding.  It made it much easier.  I was able to follow her explanations.  I can sort of “read and comprehend” what the coding means.  I’m a long ways away from ever being able to write it myself (probably never).  It’s a good thing there is something called “copy and paste” though!   You don’t need to know how to code to do the projects in this book.  You can just copy the coding and type it in, exactly as you see it.

Pedagogical Points

My intentions for E- Textiles is to provide another avenue for students to develop an interest in STEM, Design & Technology, and Computer Programming.  My intention is not to teach them to be programmers.  (I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.).  My hope is to elicit interest and to broaden children’s (especially girls’) horizons about their potential in STEM careers.  E-Textiles is great fun and appeals to those who may not be interested in building a website or a computer game (the artsy-fartsy humanities gals?).

So, this is my justification for not requiring the students to understand the ins and outs of the coding while making their projects (if you’re asking).  My student audience is mainly primary school-aged.  I would probably focus more on the electrical circuitry in primary school.  (You have to sew proper electrical circuits with conductive thread or it won’t run.) I would possibly leave out the programming aspect for the younger grades and for the older ones with no prior coding experience.  Middle School students or older would fare the best with this book—being able to glean learning from the entire book:  designing, sewing, electronics circuitry and programming.


Christmas in July

If you’ve ever lived in Asia, you’d be fully in the know that one of the big signs that Christmas is around the corner, is the horrible electronic Christmas music emanating from the overflow of tacky Xmas decorations selling in the various street markets.   There must be a market for these bastardized icons of Western Christmas, as they’re ubiquitous in Asia during pre-Christmas.  I was born and bred in the West, so I always turned my nose up at the tackiness of it all.

So, life has a way of making weird circles.  This summer, I found myself building one of those corny Christmas ornaments and programming (gasp!) tacky electronic music into it

/Vivian hangs her head in shame (No snarky remarks about how it “must be in your genes”, ok?!)

One of the last projects in the Sew Electric book has you building a stuffed toy monster. Its eyes blink until you press both its paws with your fingers. Then, the lights stop and music plays.   I didn’t feel particularly motivated to build a toy monster, but couldn’t think of any other reasonable thing that should be blinking lights and making electronic music. That is, until I thought of the cliché Christmas Tree.  (Ai ya!  Have I lost my mind?  I guess I’m willing to go to extreme lengths to be a Master teacher during this Maker Education age 😉 )

So. Sigh.  It was Christmas in July for me as I sewed my Christmas tree.   I made the wooly tree by needle felting.  If you play the “vine” below and click the speaker icon so you hear audio, you can check it out yourself.

Above: Press “Play” and click speaker icon (bottom right) to turn on the audio.

I took the code for the blinking, musical stuffed toy Monster and modified it, tweaked it here and there so it would play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.  I was SO PROUD when I was able to code my own music.  Here is an example of the Arts world colliding with the Technology world.  It was only because of my music background that I was able to see parallels from the coding system in music to that of computer coding enough to write my own song.  (So, here is one way to integrate computer sciences into music classes.)

The Christmas tree is programmed to blink lights constantly until I press the two sensors with my fingers (thus making a closed electrical circuit). Then, the lights will stop blinking and music will play.   I didn’t have coloured LEDs for the Christmas lights. I only had white.  So, I sewed plastic Christmas ornament buttons on top of the white LEDs so it gives the illusion of coloured lights blinking.

If you look very closely at the photo below, you’ll see a small silver circle.  That small circle is a sensor that only needs one hand to push, before activating the music.  (It’s actually a couple of stitches I made with the conductive thread.)  I tried to combine the coding of the lights; with the coding of the single button sensor for the music.  I was unsuccessful. I couldn’t understand the error messages too well. I’m pretty sure it was telling me that I had an extra semicolon or  I was missing a semicolon. Unfortunately, my abilities to debug are quite limited.   So, I gave up after a number of tries, and before I destroyed the parts of the code that did work.

Sensor button made with conductive thead stitched in a satin stitch

Sensor button made with conductive thead stitched in a satin stitch


Above:  Click speaker icon to hear the audio of the song, “Oh Christmas Tree” activated by a single pressure sensor.  I coded this song, on my own, too.

So, I can read coding not so badly (in this book) but I am far from being able to write too much that is original of my own.    It’s been a good experience for me as I am reminded of what it felt like when I was a early reader and emergent writer, as a young child.  It’s a very humbling experience for an adult to go back to pre-reading and pre-writing stages but you have to, if you want to integrate programming into the regular mainstream primary curriculum and you’re only a school teacher.   Small circle is the speaker for the music.  The small oval is the light (LED).   Above:  The small circular device is the speaker for the music.  The small ovals are the back of the lights (LEDs).  The big circle is the Lilypad microcontroller.  Notice the gray electrical conductive threads that I had to sew down carefully in order to build the circuits so it would all run.  I had to put down a strip of clear tape to insulate some conductive threads away from the microcontroller as they were shorting.  The rectangle on the microcontroller is the battery that powers everything.   (My coding is uploaded to the microcontroller via USB connected to Arduino software on a computer.)  

Part of my coding for the music

Part of my coding for the music


Above: Click speaker icon to hear audio

Next Projects

After finishing the Christmas tree, the next step in my learning in the Sew Electric book is to make a fabric piano keyboard where I can play different notes by pressing different parts of the fabric piano.   I have some fabric back in Switzerland that will be perfect for the project.  So, I’ve decided to wait until September when I return to Switzerland, to finish off the last project in the Sew Electric book.   I’ll post when it’s done.

Far off in the not too distant future is my ultimate goal of sewing a garment and then a quilt that incorporates more complicated sensors.   I would like to make a garment that blinks lights in response to motion. The sensor that detects motion is called an accelerometer.  You connect the accelerometer to the micro-controller using the conductive threads (making a closed circuit).  Then, you program the micro-controller to tell the lights how you want them to respond to motion.    I would also like to sew a wall quilt with a sensor that interfaces with the internet.  Maybe I will code it to light up and blink every time someone tweets the #Coetail hashtag LOL.  Hmm…I will have to have a think of what I want to sew that is meaningful but doesn’t scream out TACKY…

(Well… at least not as tacky as my Christmas tree ornament 😉 )


Merry Christmas in July!


About Vivian

Vivian @ChezVivian is a Canadian-born Chinese, currently living in Switzerland. She has also lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia. She holds a M.S. (focus: Educational Technology Integration), B.Ed and a B.A. and graduate studies in Kodály and Orff music pedagogy. She is an elementary school classroom generalist, but has also taught as a music specialist, ESL/EAL and also in Learning Support. Most of her teaching career was in International Schools in Hong Kong. She is excited about the IBPYP and the possibilities of using technology to Inquire. Recently, she has been looking at the opportunities that computer programming gives to put #TECHXture back into the hands of children. In other words, technology need not be just about looking at screens. It can be about building things with our hands; and computer programming levels-up what children can do with the things they build---encouraging higher thinking skills. She is a Coetail Post-graduate Certificate grad ('13-'14), a former Coetail Coach and one of the co-founders of #CoetailChat. Her blog home curates her assignments for Coetail and her M.S. graduate studies about Educational Technology integration and anything else educationally-related that she feels inspired to write about. Her twitter tagline sums it up: "Mom to 4, Mentor, Educator, Musician (in that order)".
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2 Responses to Christmas in July

  1. Good on you Vivian for trying this out! I’m really interested in this area so thanks for trying it out first and letting us in on your progress. I think I’ll definitely go check out that resource.