Taylor Caputo finds the intersection of designing and teaching jewelry-making to non-majors at Tyler School of Art to be fascinating – much like the intersection of design and engineering with Cirkits, a new toy to help kids learn basic electronics.
“Designing for children, you can’t really assume anything, and teaching [students] who have never made anything, you can’t assume anything so it all kind of overlaps and that’s super interesting to me,” said Caputo, an adjunct assistant professor and head designer for Cirkits.
“I find that I’m probably most passionate about teaching people how to make things,” she added, “that’s how my toy design and teaching kind of come together.”
Cirkits is a sewable DIY electronics kit for kids that was designed by a team of professors and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Integrated Product Design Master’s program, including Caputo. The kit includes six stitch cards of colorful circus characters, with holes for conductive thread to be sewed through, and conductive boards screen-printed with conductive ink to make the cards animate in a variety of ways, like having LEDs light up or characters move.
Made possible through years of research and a grant from the National Science Foundation, the project has culminated into a toy that the team hopes will encourage children to take an interest in engineering and science.
The educational aspect of Cirkits was inspired from Friedrich Fröebel, a German pedagogical researcher in the 1800s, who developed the concept of “kindergarten” and a number of educational toys, one of which included the stitch card which taught children how to sew. Cirkits takes that concept, but modernizes it for today’s generation.
“So we adapted that kind of teaching fine motor skills, but updated it by introducing the component of e-textiles,” Caputo said.
As the head designer of Cirkits, Caputo’s responsibilities include creating the visual design, making prototypes and figuring out how the technology of sewable microcontrollers was going to be implemented in the design. Having graduated from Tyler with a BFA in metals/jewelry/CAD-CAM, she sees the importance of having a product that kids actually make and interact with their hands.
“It’s still related to craft, even though it is technology, so we still wanted to bring in that handmade-ness to it,” Caputo said. “Even with Cirkits, it’s the intersection of handmade and technology.”
Cirkits ended up garnering much interest from local tech sites and enthusiasts, helping its Kickstarter campaign raise $12,584, but it wasn’t able to reach its goal of $15,000 by Feb. 16. Still, the success the campaign and product saw has allowed for the team to start improving and working on a new campaign that is planned to re-launch sometime in April.
“That was really good, that people felt really passionate about it and thought it was really cool,” Caputo said.
Celia Lewis, the design strategist for Cirkits and graduate student at UPenn’s IPD program, said the potential of Cirkits is not one singular way of thinking.
“I think we’re really trying to think about the new kinds of ways people are combining ways of learning and thinking in today’s world,” Lewis said.
With other projects the two are working on, like an injection-molding kit and toy that educates kids on how so much of what we use every day is made through plastic injection-molding, instilling the interest of fabrication and manufacturing is a long-term goal.
Especially for Caputo, who has been involved in creating since she was a child, said it was surprising for her to see how people today don’t know how to make things. But, she is hopeful for the ongoing maker movement.
“It’s an incredibly useful skill and surprisingly, depending on how you work, you can make a living off of it,” she said. “There has been a big emphasis within the maker movement about getting kids interested and getting kids engaged.”
Even during testing for Cirkits at the Franklin Institute, Lewis could see the excitement in kids’ eyes reflecting the bright light of the LEDs that blinked from their completed creation.
“They were so excited and so proud to show what they had accomplished, so it was definitely rewarding for us when you work hard on something and you get to see, literally, someone’s eyes lighting up,” Lewis said. “I think it was really meaningful to them and for all of us.”
Albert Hong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.