due at the beginning of class on Monday, February 5th


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 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. 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 try to sort things out.


Scoping projects can be very difficult sometimes. This assignment is given fairly 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 really electronically or mechanically complex. 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 Joseph 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 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, 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 8 (i.e. 9:30am on Monday, February 12th). Refer to the documentation guidelines for details about how to do your documenting.

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!