A teacher who asks students to break toys

Erik Brunvand demonstrates how to hack a toy keyboard at TEDxSaltLakeCity (Photo: TEDxSaltLakeCity)

Erik Brunvand demonstrates how to hack a toy keyboard at TEDxSaltLakeCity (Photo: TEDxSaltLakeCity)

The first assignment computing professor Erik Brunvand gives his students each semester is to buy a child’s toy from a thrift store. The second assignment is to break it. At TEDxSaltLakeCity, he explains why.

“I think this is the 21st-century equivalent of fixing a faucet or checking the tire pressure on your car,” Brunvand says. “You don’t need to be a plumber and you don’t need to be an auto mechanic to do this, but you have to have some intuition about how these things work.”

Brunvand equips students with this sort of intuition through what he calls “circuit bending” — altering circuits in order to change electronics’ functions.  He asks students to transform toy instruments into sound art machines, watching them learn basic electrical engineering in the process.

Brunvand bends a circuit onstage (Photo: TEDxSaltLakeCity)

Brunvand bends a circuit onstage (Photo: TEDxSaltLakeCity)

Brunvand does a simple circuit bend onstage — opening up a keyboard and hacking its electronics: “My fingers actually are pretty good conductors of electricity,” he says, “and so by grabbing onto [a] resistor, I changed the value of the resistance; I changed this circuits notion of time and I made it sound different.”

He ends with a challenge: “I encourage you to try this — go to the thrift store and buy a toy or or raid the toy bin of an unsuspecting child near you and take it apart and and poke at it and see if you can make it do something different.”

To learn more, watch Brunvand’s entire talk below:

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