We Didn’t Start The Fire

Shawn Gust | Coeur d’Alene Press

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

Meet Alex. He’s a second grader at my school who was born without eyes. He’s funny and smart and he loves music. Really loves music – of all sorts – with an encyclopedic obsession I’ve never seen in a kid before. Naturally, he and I get along.

I’m the music teacher at our school. I’m also the resident Nerd Supreme, whose recent rabbit hole has been physical computing: Raspberry Pi, Arduino, sensors, boxes of electronics, and soldering.

Alex’s parents want him to be more independent. I know Alex loves music. Our principal knows I like to make things and write grants. Ideas started brewing. How can we help Alex?

What if Alex could make a mental audio map of the school? What if the important landmarks around the building – bathroom, lunchroom, classroom – had a trigger that would play a specific song? Then he could figure out how many swipes of his cane it was from song to song, room to room. Using technology and music, this blind student could independently navigate his school.

I wrote a grant and received funding from the Idaho Education Technology Association. My grant was funny and charming and just vague enough to get money to cover supplies for some sort of sensor project. It also contained a Secret Funding Weapon: fourth grade students were going to build these devices.

Oh yes.

At this point, I didn’t know whether we would use PIR motion sensors, (those are the kind that turn the lights on when you walk in the room) IR breakbeam sensors (the ones that trigger a “bing-bong” when you walk into a store) or RFID (think Apple or Android Pay). I didn’t know if we’d need to learn a bunch of Python to accomplish this task. I didn’t know if we’d use Raspberry Pi.

Really, I didn’t know much.  

The thing I did know is that 9 year olds were going to create adaptive technology for a peer.

Check these kids out. This is their reaction to the first trial of their sensor on a breadboard.

Ayrha Ellis | @ayrhae

These students’ joy comes from making a thing that they knew would help someone. Someone they knew personally. That’s galvanizing. Do you see that delight on their faces? Wonder? Hands-in-the-air triumph? This is what happens when students are empowered to make. You read a lot about makerspaces and tinkering and 21st century skills, and as a teacher it’s exciting. “We could use this thing to do this thing! DO ALL THE THINGS!!” There are so many great toys to play with and experience just for the sheer joy of doing so. Yes. Please. Joy in learning. Joy is learning.

Some of you really want to know the nitty gritty about the design process. (Great – get in touch with me. Let’s totally nerd out about this!) For the rest of you – and the sake of space – I did a ton of mental prototyping.  I thought about how we wanted only Alex to trigger the sensor (so no IR sensors – everyone would trigger those), and it needed to be cheap and sturdy (RFID is not those things). I decided to go with supplies from Adafruit – they have a great little sound board, and I adapted a tutorial that used a vibration sensor so that when Alex swiped the device with his cane it would play sound.

Then I made the first protoype– the sensor for the bathroom that plays “We Didn’t Start the Fire” :

Sarah Windisch | @slwindisch

Billy Joel is telling Alex where the bathroom is, just like I’d envisioned. I knew it would work. The kids knew it would work. Even Alex knew it would work. But that very first time it actually worked out in the wild we were all still amazed that it was real. I soldered the prototype down to a permanent board. Yep, demonstrated soldering to children. Set them loose with tools – stripping wires, using a heat gun. I only get to see these kids for 30 minutes once a week, so creating 5 devices took longer than I anticipated, but here’s the payoff:

Sarah Windisch | @slwindisch

And that snazzy red box the sensor is housed in? Your illustrious blog editor [Ed. Note- *waves*] made those for me. I was sharing the project with him and he started peppering me with questions and ideas. I brought up that right now the devices are housed in small Altoids tins, and those tins are flimsy and not ideal. Doug immediately offered to use the Polar3D printer at his school to make sturdier boxes. Through many emails (we live in two different states), much math, and some trial and error Doug printed six boxes that perfectly hold and protect Alex’s sensors.

You and your students have passion – it’s already burning. It has been and it will be. You didn’t light it, just like the song says. But don’t be like Billy. Don’t try to fight it. Go for it. Explore and share with your kids. Look for ways to really make change in the world around you. You never know what you might ignite and who may see by your light.


Sarah Windisch is a music teacher and technology coach at an elementary school in Post Falls, Idaho. When she’s not, you know, teaching, she’s running in the woods or running with scissors. She’s also known for running off at the mouth. Her aim is to be as hilarious as her students some day. Find her on Twitter @slwindisch.

Lyrics: Joel, Billy. We Didn’t Start the Fire. Columbia, 1989.

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Sarah Windisch

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