Thrifting with a Makey Makey

This week, I was challenged to learn how to use a Makey Makey, and then to creatively remix it with items from a thrift store (and my house) to create a prototype of something I could use with my students.

After watching some sample videos of what others had done with a Makey Makey, I was both impressed with how versatile this tool is and amazed at the creative things people came up with. (Who would ever think to make musical chairs or a life-size race game, let alone a pee counter?)  Then I started to get intimidated: How could I top this crazy greatness?  And how was I ever going to come up with a meaningful way to use this in my classroom, since most of the videos I saw were about music and/or done by elementary-age students?  I mean, I could make some sort of review game where they answer by touching the object instead of pressing a button on the computer, but I don’t really like to use technology just because it’s “neat” or “engaging” — If I’m going to go through the work of figuring this out and making something new, I want it to meaningfully redefine what my students can do or produce.

I talked myself off the ledge and decided I should probably go back and do the readings for class this week. Fortunately Dr. Punya Mishra directly addressed my concerns about creativity in his article “Rethinking Technology & Creativity in the 21st Century: Crayons are the Future“.  While I’m not very artistically creative (as you will see in my video for this week!), I do enjoy creatively solving problems in areas like science and teaching in which I have a lot more skill and training.  And I’d like to help my students to become creative, divergent thinkers, but I don’t give them a lot of opportunities to do that.  I often give them labs that are neatly packaged, and even if they’re guided inquiry labs, I have set the conditions so that the students will generally be successful on their first or second attempt, no matter what procedure they decide to follow.  But just this week, when we had a lab fail in AP Chemistry class, we got to talk about how scientists don’t work this way: in fact, they fail and tweak and creatively problem-solve way more often than they get affirmation that their results were what they expected.

My MakerSpace

So with that in mind, I decided to apply my scientific skills to figuring out the Makey Makey kit.  I opened it up and started connecting wires to random things to figure out what would and would not conduct.


My desk was a crazy mess of chaos, but I had a lot of fun finding random things in my house that might work, including this cow creamer holder that I bought at a thrift shop a few months ago.  It works with the Makey Makey if I put aluminum foil inside of it.  I was surprised at some things that didn’t naturally conduct, like a magnetic tree-shaped stand (which you will see as a prop in my final video).

In the back of my mind, I still wasn’t sure how this had any practical use for my classroom, but I decided to pursue what I was most inspired by, which was the cow creamer holder and a music book of kids’ songs that only use 6 notes (which works perfectly with the Makey Makey, because there are 6 inputs on the basic side of the board) .  I thought it’d be funny to play a song that involved a cow, and maybe figure out how to make him moo.

I found a good Creative Commons Moo sound at FreeSound, a Scratch program that was set up to make the Makey Makey into a keyboard, and the music for “Old McDonald Had a Farm” in the book of kids’ songs.  I figured out that I didn’t need the “E” note to play my song, so I played around with the Scratch program and made that key into the “Moo” sound effect.  I had some trouble with the click function not responding fast enough, so I also reprogrammed the “A” note to be triggered by the “w” key found on the back of the Makey Makey.  My Old McDonald Scratch Keyboard was ready to go!

Then I set up my scene:

2014-11-02 15.51.46

I connected the cords as shown in this diagram:

Old McDonald Setup (1)

Finally, I plugged the Makey Makey into the USB drive of my laptop, and recorded this amazing rendition of Old McDonald:

Lesson Planning

As I thought about my process of playing, I realized that I have a very natural opening in my curriculum for something like this!  Not only is this kind of divergent and creative play a part of the NGSS standards and something I’d like to incorporate more into my classes, but the Makey Makey is driven by electrical conductivity, which can be explained by the flow of electrons and the type of chemical bonding present, a topic I cover in both Honors Chemistry and AP Chemistry.

I decided to make a lesson plan that would provide a more guided and scaffolded version of the task I was given this week.  My lesson plan elaborates on how I plan to demonstrate the Makey Makey to students, give them time to explore, and then challenge them to create a video that utilizes 3 different conductive substances, a Scratch keyboard program, and the Makey Makey to play a song.  They will then write a short paper explaining their process of creation and the scientific principles that allow the Makey Makey to work with their objects.

I believe that the photos and videos I created will help my students (and you, the readers of this blog) as they begin their own creations.  Examples of what is possible and how to do it were essential inspirations and explanations for me, and my example will hopefully be a springboard to them as well.  If you are inspired by what I’ve done here, please let me know!


Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. Moo.wav. November 30th, 2009. 2 November 2014.

Ericr. MaKey MaKey Piano-2.  17 May, 2012.  2 November 2014.

Mishra, P., & The Deep-Play Research Group (2012). Rethinking Technology & Creativity in the 21st Century: Crayons are the Future. TechTrends, 56(5), 13-16.


3 thoughts on “Thrifting with a Makey Makey

  1. Jill, you and I are in the same boat. We both teach high school, and this MaKey MaKey challenge was a little scary for me, too. I really connected with your experience when you said, “And how was I ever going to come up with a meaningful way to use this in my classroom, since most of the videos I saw were about music and/or done by elementary-age students?” You should check out Brian Way’s blog. He teaches high school and had the same concerns as we did. You did a great job making something that high schoolers, even AP Chem kids, could have fun with.

    I liked your conversational tone in your blog, especially in this sentence: “My desk was a crazy mess of chaos.” Mine is too, by the way. Your statement, “I talked myself off the ledge and decided I should probably go back and do the readings for class this week” was funny, too. It captured the mood of an easy-going conversation between teachers. Which brings me to my next point: you had a firm grasp of your audience.

    One thing that I thought was gutsy in your blog was your admission that you had a lab fail. Many teachers are afraid to admit that! We all have things fail in our classes, and you did a great thinking on your feet to make that a learning opportunity for your students. I also liked this part of your post because it reaffirmed to me that failure is a great learning tool. I teach high school yearbook, and some of the best learning takes place when my kids fail at taking photos or when laying out pages.

    I loved your choice of objects! I watched your video several times and was quite impressed with your attention to detail and creativity. You certainly did not phone it in! I appreciated the backdrop, the tidiness of the whole scene, and the arrows and text on the final picture. You clearly spent a great deal of time to make the project cohesive and fun, from the “moo,” to the song choice, to the cow creamer.

    Thanks for an enjoyable read and a great video. I will definitely revisit your blog to see what other high school teachers are doing with these new technologies. I hope, too, that I can get some ideas from an academic subject teacher (that’s you!) on how I can incorporate innovative technology in my English 9 class, not just my yearbook class. I am glad to see that you don’t want to use technology just because it’s “neat,” and I look forward to your future posts.

  2. Jill,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your blog post about your Makey Makey experience and I felt like we had similar reactions when viewing all of the cool things that the Makey Makey project gallery had. I too saw soooo many cool projects and felt super intimidated when I first opened the box and saw a tiny motherboard and a handful o of wires. How does this become that? I felt very much like I was standing on “the ledge” as you put it.

    I teach High School AP-US History and World History and I felt such a disconnect from what I saw on the project galleries and what I was going to be able to do in my class. High Schoolers need to explore and create but what does that look like in a high school setting? I loved your line about the practicality of the Makey Makey in a high school setting. You wrote, “ I mean, I could make some sort of review game where they answer by touching the object instead of pressing a button on the computer, but I don’t really like to use technology just because it’s “neat” or “engaging” – If I’m going to go through the work of figuring this out and making something new, I want it to meaningfully redefine what my students can do or produce.” Technology should redefine! It should create! It shouldn’t just allow us to do what pencil and paper could do! I really think your lesson accomplished this experiential style of learning.

    You mentioned that you often give labs that are “neatly packaged” and that these “pre-set conditions” are geared towards student success but sensed you’d like something a little more exploratory. I feel like you’ve struck a good balance in your lesson with enough structure and modeling to the students to understand the process yet enough latitude in exploration with the materials that they can choose that they will experiment, fail, and learn.

    Thanks for writing this blog post Jill, and I look forward to seeing how you actively engage in the process of meaningful technology integration. I will be checking back to see what this looks like in a high school setting especially with a fellow educator who is concerned with using technology to transform, not just use.

  3. Your Makey Makey project put a smile on my face. It was really fun to watch you play Old MacDonald had a farm. I loved that the cow would actually Moo. It even caught my daughter’s attention, a teenager, so great job! Like you, I was very intimidated with the Makey Makey kit. I really had no idea how I was going to come up with an idea to use in the classroom.

    I really like that part in your blog post were you talked about scientists tend to fail a lot. They have to keep tweaking and creatively come up with solution more than what is really confirmed. I teach graphic design and many of the programs take some time to get use to. Students will often think they should be able to create perfection the first time using it. They quickly find that will not happen, that it often takes months of practice to get use to only the basics of the program.

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