Paper circuits are SO much fun! They can be fun, crafty, and a great way to look at STEM concepts that still feels approachable for students. Paper circuits allow for a quick win for students – you can help them get a working circuit made within a 30-50 minute class period. Students can build on their successes and create more complicated circuits later, making this a low-threshold/high-ceiling activity. And, paper circuits are budget friendly – all you need is some copper tape, LEDs and some paper.
How to Run a Paper Circuit Workshop
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Note on ages: I’ve done this activity with middle and high schoolers and it works fantastically. I think you could easily do it with upper elementary students as well – you just might want to order the larger LEDs so that they’re easier to handle. I think students younger than that might have trouble with the copper tape, but you could potentially make part of the project ahead of time so they wouldn’t have to fuss with it. Or you could go for Squishy Circuits to help students get the concepts first.
Make a few examples ahead of time
I’ve found that one of the best ways to explain paper circuits to students is to have an example made ahead of time. That way they can see what works and have a guide to work with. I make small examples of a basic/simple circuit and a parallel circuit. This helps my students to see what they’re working towards. You can make a more complicated example if you want, as long as you help students to understand that they’re going for the simple one first.
Start simple and small
If you give students a large canvas, they’ll work to fill it. If you give them a smaller one, they’ll stay focused. For this activity, I always use repurposed due date cards for the first round (another benefit of a well-weeded collection). Giving students a smaller surface to start with keeps them from getting too crazy right away. I always have them start with a single LED and a basic circuit. Once they get that first victory, then we move on to larger options and more complex circuits.
How to actually make a paper circuit
- Determine which side of the battery is positive and which is negative
- Check you LED for which leg is longer – mark this one with a permanent marker to help you remember which side is which.
- Lay out your copper tape from where the battery will go to where the LED will go. Do this part carefully and slowly, as the tape needs to be smooth to work best. Corners are tricky – I tend to fold the tape over itself like wrapping a present. Try to use one continuous piece, but if you have to add more, make sure that the connection is strong.
- Tape down your LED with copper tape – but be sure to test it with a battery first.
- Secure your battery and light up your circuit!
- Bonus: Have students label which side is positive and which side is negative.
Here’s some great tutorials that go into more detail:
- 3D printed copper tape holders – They keep your copper tape from unraveling and getting tangled. Trust me, print out a set of these (or ask a friend to do it for you). You won’t regret it.
- Chibitronics LED stickers – I like to start my students with regular LEDs first, so they can better grasp the concept of positive and negative and how circuits work. Once they get that down and are looking to create more artistic projects with their paper circuits, I introduce them to Chibitronics LED stickers.
- Sparkfun’s The Great Big Guide to Paper Circuits
- The Big Book of Makerspace Projects (has a whole chapter on paper circuits)
- The Art of Tinkering (has a section on paper circuits; and the cover is a circuit!)
- Paper Circuits (21st Century Skills Innovation Library)
- Make: Paper Inventions: Machines that Move, Drawings that Light Up, and Wearables and Structures that You can Cut, Fold and Roll