due at the beginning of Class 7: on Tuesday, September 18th


Lots of things do what we expect them to do. Let go of a pencil, and it’s going to fall. Flip on the light switch in a room and the lights will go on. Throw a heavy rock into a lake and it makes a satisfying kerplunk sound and a nice big splash.

But sometimes things surprise us. Maybe because we were missing some context and gravity is working as usual, but simply in a different direction than we expected.

Or maybe the light switch in the room was wired to a crazy blinky disco ball instead of the usual overhead lights.

Or maybe that lake’s water isn’t liquid. Instead of a kerplunk, you get a glassy smash.


Make something surprising. It should be surprising explicitly in the sense that it does not do what most of your classmates expect it would. Giggles are preferred over gasps—aim to induce wonder and delight rather than fright.

Try to make the surprise interesting rather than boring: if the surprise is that when you push a button, an LED does not light up, that might be surprising to you if you just thought you’d wired it up right, but it’s probably not so surprising to somebody else.

There are many expectations humans have that are based on long experience (like knowing that gravity always pulls down), but you may find that you want to engineer your own expectations in your audience, so that you can then subvert them. Perhaps something behaves a certain way four times in a row but the fifth time departs from it. Or perhaps you think your audience is already going to anticipate that, and you instead take things in a different direction.

There are also surprises that, even though you know they’re coming along, can still be delightful. For instance, a Jack-in-the-Box is a classic toy that surprises with its timing. Turning the crank, you know what’s going to happen, but you never quite know when.

from GIPHY

(Please try not to make anybody cry their little eyes out.)

Technical requirements

Your surprise machine must have at least one input that reads information from the world (a button, a light sensor, a thermometer, anything you want) and at least one output that affects the world (it makes a sound, it moves something, it lights up, whatever you want). It should work on its own—you shouldn’t Wizard of Oz it.


You’ll be assigned a partner for this project; pairings are visible to logged-in users here. Partners work together and share the same credit for the assignment. You can divvy up tasks how you’d like, but it should be something that both partners are comfortable with. If you are becoming frustrated or feel like you’re not going to be succeed in getting a project together with your assigned partner, speak with Zach as soon as possible so we can sort things out.


Scoping projects can be very difficult sometimes. This assignment is given early in the semester, when there hasn’t been much time for technical learning. You’ll just be getting comfortable with simple circuits by the time the project comes due, and you’re not expected to build something complex electronically or mechanically. Instead, you’re expected to spend some real time on ideation.

If you’re having trouble, try writing down a bunch of bad/stupid/ridiculous ideas, circle a few, and riff on them. See if you can surprise your friends or roommate. Maybe look up a good magic trick or two for inspiration (magic is all about surprising the audience and anticipating—then subverting—their expectations). Speak with Zach or Runchang if you’re still feeling stuck, but be prepared to show them a list of ideas or other evidence that you’ve tried to get yourself unstuck.

A final note on scope: for this first assignment, do not worry about hiding your wires, etc. It’s ok for the thing to look aesthetically sloppy, so long as it works. (If it needs to look tidy to be surprising, then ok, make it look tidy.) Build it out of cardboard, tape, straws, and hot glue if you want! Low-cost and easy-to-use materials are great and expected.


Take pictures as you’re going along! Your completed documentation is due at the beginning of Class 9: 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 25th.

Why do you submit documentation?

The Arduino project was born, after some twists and turns, out of an Italian masters student’s thesis.1 He could have, one imagines, kept all those ideas to himself, started up a little factory, and sold them for €50 and called it a day. But the project has grown into a worldwide thing of beauty because the hardware designs (how to build an Arduino) and all of the underlying software (how to program one) are “open-sourced.” This means that anybody who wants to can see the community’s work and make their own version. Maybe even improve it themselves, and then suggest that their improvement might be something the community as a whole wants to adopt. Don’t believe me? Look at all these people contributing to the project’s Github page.

Think of how great it is for someone to see your cool project, get inspired, and build on it to make their own customized version. The answer is: very great! Having stood on the shoulders of others in the world of people making things, you can begin to return the favor by sharing the interesting ideas and technical insights you had.

Finally, we in IDeATe are interested in encouraging an introspective inquiry into your own process of ideation, creation, and revision. Just as writing an essay helps you understand your own argument on a topic better, documenting your own creative process will help you understand your creativity better. Documentation gives you insight to see what you got hung up on and what steps you wish you’d lingered on more. It opens a window onto your own process.

What to submit (documentation content requirements)

If you have any questions about the submissions requirements, or run into technical problems, be sure to contact the instructor or TA before the due date.

Each documentation submission must consist of at least:

  • A “featured image” that is a good overall view of the project. This image will show up above the title of your project in the overview page. This image should be one of the “well-shot” images described below, or a cropped subset of one of them. Select the featured image by clicking on “set featured image” in the right column of the post editing page.

  • The project title.

  • Carefully- and well-shot images of the final project. Take these using IDeATe’s PhotoZone backdrop and lighting for an especially easy professional look, or shoot out in the field if you prefer. The DSLR photography guide provides a lot of pointers.
    At least three shots:

    1. Overall photo for proportion and scale
    2. Detail photo of any part that you’d like to highlight (up to 3)
    3. Images showing the use of the thing (up to 3)
    4. Optional—gif or gifv or little .mov to embed in the documentation page to show motion or interaction

Each image should be captioned. (To add captions in WordPress: click on an image, click on the pencil icon to edit it, write a caption, and click “update.”) The captions serve to explain both what the viewer is looking at, as well as elucidating some of the operating details of the object. Three captioned images is the minimum; use more of them if you want to tell a deeper story about the project.

  • Simple narrative description of the thing and usual operation of the thing—the type of plain and straightforward description that you might write in a letter to a child to explain what you had made. Free of judgment and totally literal and straightforward. Try to use as little technical language as possible. (E.g. “A white plastic box has a switch on the top side. When the user turns it on, a green LED flashes five times showing that the system is ready. A small white flag waves back and forth.”) For a study in the art of using simple language, see Randall Munroe’s wonderful Up Goer Five. To use a simple-language filter yourself, try the Up-Goer Five text editor.

  • Three progress images, each of which could be a step or misstep that happened along the developent process, and each with at least a sentence or two caption. These images may capture decision points, especially interesting or illustrative mistakes, or other mileposts along the way. The idea is that these medium-quality images (though good pictures work too) are taken along the way to document progress. Sometimes they will be understood as being moments-that-matter only in retrospect.

  • Schematic, hand-drawn and scanned, or executed in software like Fritzing, EAGLE, in some flowchart application like draw.io, or any other way that produces a reasonably legible output. This should be done well enough that a competent person, reading the drawing and with the appropriate parts, could recreate the electrical system of the project. Note: Do not just draw the letter A with a rectangle around it to represent the Arduino. Write a more complete label for it, such as “Arduino Uno R3.”

  • Code submission instructions are forthcoming, based on a technical matter with WordPress which we’re working on.

  • Discussion pertaining to process and outcome. For instance, what was easy, what was hard, what did you learn? What little tweak, in retrospect, would’ve changed the direction entirely? This is an opportunity for you to reflect on your creative and technical growth through the project, and think about what growth you want to aim for next. This shouldn’t be a recital of your process, but rather a meaningful reflection, 2–4 paragraphs in length.

How to submit (WordPress instructions)

All documentation is submitted by making a post on the course WordPress site.

  • For Project 1: Surprise, make a post with the title in the format “Surprise: Your Project’s Name Here.” Either group member’s account can be used to compose and publish the post, with the understanding that it’s a shared effort. On the right side of the page where you compose your post, under “Categories” select “Project 1.”

  • Upload your images at a reasonably high resolution; 1000 pixels of width is the lower boundary of what you should aim for. After adding an image to the post, click on it in the editor, click on the pencil icon to get to its Image Details popup, and select Size: large.

  • You can also use the Image Details menu to add a caption to an image.

Ordering parts

If you need parts that aren’t available in IDeATe Lending or in Phys Comp stock, the class budget may be able to make the purchase for you. As soon as you decide you’ll need a part, fill out this order form and, so nothing falls through the cracks, also write an email to Zach advising you just filled the form out so it can be processed as quickly as possible.

Feedback rubric

Credit is allocated as follows:

  • 50% documentation
    • 20% images
    • 15% writing (narrative and discussion sections)
    • 10% schematic
    • 5% code
  • 30% technical performance
    • 15% at least one input works reliably
    • 15% at least one output works reliably
  • 20% surprise achieved!


  1. This is actually complicated and contentious. See this account from that masters student, Hernando Barragán, to get his side of the story.