Exploring Circuits Affordably

Dough-based circuit activities happen to be one of my favorite STEAM activities. Youth learn about electricity by manipulating salt-based dough and LED lights. It’s very open-ended, exploratory, and science-focused. It has even managed to captivate some of my more squirrely and resistant learners.

During a recent webinar, Creating a Making & Tinkering Summer, we discussed how to help youth develop and expand explanations during making and tinkering activities. We also spent some time talking about dough circuit activities after watching the What Do You Know About Circuits? skill video. Along with this, I'd like to share how I prepare and conduct the dough-based circuits activity on a smaller budget. Many versions of the activity require you to buy expensive kits for youth to work with (up to $60 per student? yikes!). That's not always affordable.

Important safety note: Never touch metal to metal during dough-based circuitry activities. It can spark, even overheat and damage the plastic on rechargeable AA batteries, which can lead to leaking batteries. For this reason, I would advise sticking with youth ages 10 and up.

What you need...

A power source – (8 for $9)

I managed to find an eight pack of 9V batteries online for less than $10. A 9V battery can work well, but it isn’t rechargeable, and it does corrode in contact with the salty dough. With younger students I would use a battery pack with a large supply of 1.2V rechargeable AA batteries. Batteries used during these types of activities tend to run out fast because dough resists electricity more than wire. Therefore, you might appreciate having rechargable batteries.

LED lights – (100 for $7)

I used clear plastic LED lights purchased online. Because all the lights appear white without power, I used colored permenant markers to mark the tops of the lights so youth knew which lights were what color.

Dough – ($0-$15 depending on what you have in your kitchen)

Conductor Dough: Store-bought play dough is an excellent conductor, and I would recommend having several colors available for maximum artistry. You could also make your own using Squishy Circuirt's Conductor Dough recipe.

Insulator Dough: You’ll also want insulator dough that can keep the prongs of the LED separated so that electricity is forced to the LED. Insulator dough has a sugar base, and due to the chemical structure of sugar it doesn’t carry a charge. Make your own using Squishy Circuit's Insulator Dough recipe.


Check out Squishy Circuits for more fun things you can challenge your youth to try with these materials. 

What ways have you approached a dough-based circuitry activity in your program?