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Redefining the (digital) Classroom

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Making a Homemade Stylus: A Great Electricity Activity!

As more of our students are using touchscreen devices, teachers are realizing there is an added cost in peripherals... i.e., apps, headphones and styluses. These costs can quickly add up, so finding simple low-cost solutions is quite helpful. Below is a quick way to create your own stylus with 3 household items in just a few seconds! Plus - BONUS - it makes an awesome science activity... scroll down for more.

- Q-Tip
- Small cup of water
- Tin Foil

  1. Cut a strip of tin foil so it will wrap around all of your Q-Tip except the tip of the cotton. 
  2. Get your Q-Tip and wrap a large strip of tin foil around it so only the very tip of the cotton pokes out. The tin foil should be touching the cotton tip.
  3. Wet the cotton tip (damp, not completely soaked) and use!
Optional: If you want a longer stylus handle, you can push it through the empty shell of a ballpoint pen! Just wrap the tinfoil around the outside of the pen, and again - make sure the foil touches the tip of the cotton.

Note: You do have to hold the stylus by the tinfoil. You also will want to keep a wet sponge in the middle of your student tables so they can re-dampen their cotton -- think like an old-school inkwell! (Ironic, no?)

Why does this work? 
Most modern smartphones and tablets have something called capacitive touch screens. This means that they work because of a distortion in the screen's electrostatic field... basically it has to do with electrical current! While pure water is an insulator water with even the small amounts of salt can be conductors. Since humans are a bit salty ;), we make decent conductors.

This is also why we have to take off our gloves when using our phones. Since the glove material is non-conductive, it won't "complete the circuit" and activate the screen sensors to operate the touch screen. The wet Q-Tip connected to the tinfoil (a conductor) makes this stylus work. This is why the tinfoil has to touch the cotton part and why you have to hold the tinfoil and not just the bare plastic or paper handle.

Science Activity!
I plan to use this activity when exploring electricity and insulators/conductors with my innovation team students this year! I will give them several different materials and let them experiment with building their own conductor-friendly styluses... perhaps they'll iterate on this idea and come up with something better. I hope to share the results here. If you do the same, please also post your results!

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