BitBlox: Redesigning the Breadboard

Overview

BitBlox was a project creating a modular solderless breadboard that is easier for students to learn. It was designed to be used as a research probe to understand how to promote collaboration and learning in physical computing. The modularity of the BitBlox boards enables students to create their prototyping tool as they build their circuit; while the coloring, helps minimize the overhead for learning the tool (ie. designed to minimize the cognitive load). The development of BitBlox was our first exploration of the tools for physical computing.

example BitBlox circuit with an Arduino, Flexsensor, LED, and Resistor

Motivation

In our initial work with physical computing, we were using the Arduino Microcontroller and the SparkFun Inventor’s Kit because it provides a flexible environment for students to explore the electronics, computing, and design concepts embedded within all physical computing artifacts. However, from an educational standpoint working with the Arduino environment has steep learning curve with little scaffolding. This poses issues for novices of programming and electronics. One stumbling block that seemed unnecessary was the breadboard. Not wanting to black-box the electronics, we designed and built BitBlox in order to try and reduce the cognitive load for students working in an Arduino environment.

Design

BitBlox is similar to the standard breadboard in that it is still a solderless prototoyping tool allowing the user to create connections between wires and components by placing them into holes that are electrically connected. The standard breadboard has connection schemes as shown in the image below. The top and bottom sections have the entire row connected while the middle sections are connected in columns. The back of the breadboard shows the metal pieces that actually create the connections.

(right) Picture of the front of the breadboard showing boxes that demonstrate the connections between the holes. (Left) Picture of the back fo the breadboard that shows the horizontal metal strips on the top and bottom of the breadboard and the vertical metal strips in the middle two sections demonstrating the conenctions

BitBlox bring visibility to where the connections actually are in the tool with the coloring. Each section of holes that are the same color are electrically connected. Below are images of the various types of BitBlox that we have created. These different types were created to allow a user to also use components with fixed width pins such as LCD screens, transistors, and IC chips.

picture of the various sizes of BitBlox modules

We’ve had success piloting them in with College students at Tech and Berry College, as well as with High School students. Here are some images of circuits the high school students made during one of our classroom studies. You can read about that study in the publication section below.

picture of a compact BitBlox circuit picture of a spread out BitBlox circuit picture of an circuit organized with a section for LEDs and a section for buttons

Research: Comparative Classroom Study with High School Students

The high school classroom study with BitBlox, we analyzed two 11th grade classes at a rural public high school that had a focus on tying the students’ education to the strong agricultural connections in their community. We worked with 44 novice students in two drafting classes where students often participated in project work designing and building objects. In this study, we used two classes to understand effect different prototyping tools had on the socio-technical environment. One class used the standard breadboard prototyping tool and one used BitBlox. During the class, students learned the basics about the Arduino, and then built a circuit to play the Simon Memory game using three buttons and three LEDs. The study highlighted three important effects the tools had in the learning environment: 1. The novice students learned about the utility of organizational affordances of the tools, such as the wire colors and the connections between the BitBlox modules, in order to minimize the errors they were making 2. BitBlox spread out the circuit, increasing the size of the tool, which improved students’ ability to collaborate and create a shared understanding with each other and the instructors 3. The identifiers such as color and symbols on the breadboards facilitated students in dialogue about their circuits, allowing them to reference parts of their circuit when troubleshooting and explaining their circuits

Exploring Information Visualization

After the pilot tests and the classroom study we wanted to understand how we could affect the dialogue in ways that could be productive for learning based on the information built into the tool. We began to experiment with including other types of information into the BitBlox. Below you can see one example visualizing the voltage in the circuit simply by using the breadboard voltage module. We are still experimenting with these ideas.

Publications

DesPortes, K., Anupam, A., Pathak, N., & DiSalvo, B. (2016). BitBlox: A Redesign of the Breadboard. Proceedings of the The 15th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, (pp. 255–261). ACM. [Download]

Team

  • Project Lead: Kayla DesPortes
  • Graduate Researchers:
    • Neeti Pathak - MS in Computer Science @ Georgia Tech
    • Aditya Anupam - MS in Electrical Engineering @ Georgia Tech
  • Advisor: Betsy DiSalvo - Associate Professor