Bleepy McProtoboard simplifies prototyping with Arduino by replacing the traditional breadboard with a large, pluggable patch bay. It grew out of the in-classroom Hacklebox research workshops and research with the Berlin-based School of Machines and Make-Believe. The ‘Board simplifies the process of facilitating physical computing workshops in the classroom by providing large-scale, color-coded, prefabricated components.
After spending time with teachers who were newly interested in using Arduino in the classroom, I learned that it can be intimidating. Bleepy Protoboard is designed to alleviate some of the intimidation by making prototyping larger, simpler, group-focused, and easier to manage in a large classroom setting.
Designed for educators
When most people are asked to envision a computer, they’re likely to picture a rectangle with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. In reality, a computer can take an almost infinite number of forms, including toys, clothing, and even DNA. Teaching kids to create their own electronic objects that interact with the physical world can open up entire worlds of invention and experimentation.
One tool for teaching physical computing in the classroom is the Arduino microcontroller. Prototyping with an Arduino typically involves creating circuits using a breadboard, a small plastic board with tiny holes that allows you to connect electronic components together without having to solder. While the breadboard is great for experimenting, it can be challenging to manage a room full of children creating their own circuits. I observed this first-hand in classrooms, sometimes with teachers who were hungry to experiment with their students but had limited training themselves.
In contrast to the tiny holes and wires of a breadboard, which can be difficult for kids to manipulate and challenging for more than one person to see and use at a time, Bleepy McProtoboard makes it easy for teachers to demonstrate and troubleshoot, and easy for three or four children to work together on one board.
You might compare it to Lego and Duplo. Duplo was launched as a little-kid-friendly version of Lego, the famous plastic interlocking bricks. Duplo is twice the size, which makes it simpler and safer to use for children younger than three years old.
Bleepy McProtoboard is similar. Its size and color coding makes it simpler for younger children to use and for teachers to observe and facilitate.
The board itself is a laser cut box made from the least expensive ¼” plywood available at the hardware store, and uses banana plugs and jacks for the pluggable components. The color-coding is based on the board input or output of a given pin : Analog inputs are yellow, analog outputs (also known as PWM) are white, digital inputs are green, digital inputs are blue, servo inputs are brown, power is red, and the ground is black.
This board is designed for an Arduino UNO board, and so will work with any Arduino-compatible software. I recommend using Scratch 4 Arduino (S4A) , which is a version of Scratch—a visual and Lego-like programming language—that has been modified to work with Arduino.
The 'Board is currently demoing as an interactive installation on a gallery wall, so pardon the photos being a slightly different context than the my ultimate intention.
Rapidly prototyped rapid prototype for rapid prototyping
While this board is designed to facilitate rapid prototyping, I used a rapid approach in building it as well. When I first imagined a larger and more manageable electronic prototyping space, the idea was hazy and abstract. I began to build to bring the idea out of abstraction and into physical reality. I built the first component out of cardboard and spare parts I found in the studio.
After more experiments and several iterations of the component boxes, I built the first full version of the board out of scrap wood, conductive thread, hot glue, and shirt snaps. These ingredients were inexpensive, easy to come by, and easy to reconfigure as I learned more about the design through the process of building.
Letting other people play with the prototype showed me how flimsy the first design was. I’d been very careful as I snapped and unsnapped components. Other people were not, and many of the snaps ripped right from the wood. The surrounding acrylic plastic play space emerged from observing people awkwardly look for ways to fix the components to something secure as they built out their inventions. The wires became tangled together, leading me to design thicker and more durable patch cables from shoelaces. Physically interacting with the idea before I’d spent too much time guessing and speculating helped me move quickly to the current version (as of this writing).
This is only the beginning of this project, however. The real test will be after the prototype comes down from the gallery wall and goes into a classroom of fifth graders. I am positive we will all learn a lot.