Tales of a 6th Grade Maker: Tribulations of a Laser Cutting Science Fair Project

Digital Fabrication Education Laser Cutting Raspberry Pi
Tales of a 6th Grade Maker: Tribulations of a Laser Cutting Science Fair Project

This year, I’ve worked maker-y stuff into as many school projects as my teachers will let me. Light-up dragons, remote control Trojan horses, and more have made 6th grade very fun.

Even though it was a great way to keep up my grades and have a lot of fun, there were some drawbacks. My teachers were really understanding and gave me good grades even when the projects ran a little past deadline, but there was a twist to the grade: I got a great grade when I presented to my class, but the judge at my science fair didn’t believe that I did this work. I have had failures before and I think I deal with them okay but this was new for me.

The other twists involved:

  • Changing the project goals
  • Changing the cutting materials
  • Having to rebuild my servos
  • Taking apart the old DVD drive
  • Not being able to present my lasers or my video to the judge

Building a Laser

For my science project, I wanted to use lasers and real servos to make a laser cut the cake frosting paper my dad works with. I was surprised when my teacher approved the project. I had expected to get a “no,” so I had a backup project all ready to go. This took more hours than my Altoids box game system did: five weeks of “kid time.” I wound up using Lego to hold it all together because they were really convenient to build with.

The project started with making servos to replace the ones I lost.

I did not use “Lego robotics” parts for the lasers or servos, I used stuff from Adafruit, a Raspberry Pi, some Tesla batteries, guides, and online articles. Side projects and missteps were a big part of this. White frosting sheets were a bad choice, so I tried construction paper. Construction paper is really uneven in thickness, so I switched to origami paper. At one point I decided the red laser needed to have a new focus method. I tried taking apart an old DVD drive to salvage a lens. I settled on moving the laser back and forth to get the right focus.

Wiring was fun. I recycled my old drum kit project for this.

Instead of drawing lines, the servos cut small holes, so I decided that the time it took to cut small holes would be how I measure my “Independent Variable,” which was paper color.

Removing the laser lens from an old CD player
Here I’m trying to assemble a new laser lens holder from black wrap — the material I used to make my fire box. See my OLPC in the corner? I used it to send the laser fire commands a few times.
This is my laser kit ready to cut green construction paper.

Then, the guards at my school decided that I was not allowed to bring the lasers in to demonstrate. “Lasers are against the rules” — this isn’t ENTIRELY true, but you are not allowed to argue with the security guards. Instead, I brought in videos loaded onto my Pi pad which I made portable by scratching together a few Tesla batteries, an ICstation battery controller, and a Pi foundation screen and case.

Long ago, I had made my own Pi pad. Good thing I had it so I could bring my videos to school!
The Pi portable is just a standard screen and holder, but with a battery jammed inside, and a battery controller.
Side view of the Pi pad, with the controller on it.

My science teacher gave me a great grade on the project, I felt a strong success and I figured that was the end of the story. I submitted to put my project into my school’s Science Fair. This is where the trouble started.

The Science Fair

First, I had to re-make my entire science board. I was told to put “the effect of ______ on ______” into the title. I made it all in Google Docs, so it was easy to reprint. My project was the only maker-y project in the sixth grade, all the other projects were the ones you might expect to see like extracting metal from juice or making electricity from fruit.

The day of the fair was a little tough. I had a good “show” worked up for my class, and they loved it, but almost two months had gone by. Well after the fair had “closed” for the night, the judge came to my stand. The day had already ended and we had all been standing around hours waiting for the judges. The judge came to my stand last, when they got a terrible nose bleed. It was a tough presentation, the judge and I were both unfocused (laser joke!) by the late hour and bleeding nose.

Waiting for the judge at my science fair, notice my Pi pad in the background?

I wound up having to read from my notes to make the speech, and it came out poorly. The judge ran off quickly, and made only the comment “How much of this did your dad do for you?” My judge never watched the videos either, of me doing the work and showing the process, or saw the hand-built Pi tablet that I had hoped would help show I was able to do the laser work.

The judge finally came over. This was not my best moment.

A few days later, names were read over the loudspeaker, and I wasn’t first, second, or third. My friends told me later that I was given “Honorable Mention.” I did get invited to the pizza party for science fair people too. I’ve failed at stuff before, like at my “Explo” summer program Maker Faire last year where my skeeball contraption fell apart. In engineering (makering?) I learned that failure needs to be the start of the next project. This time it was different because this had been a success. The high grade and “best in class” part when I presented the first time felt really good, but being judged like that did hurt. I gave a bad presentation to the judge too, I was thrown way off of my game and that’s on me. I also wish I was able to show lasers cutting things either live or on video.

Questions About Star Wars

Back to the fun side, I did get to spend weeks playing with lasers and watching Star Wars.

Thanks to this project, I can no longer watch Star Wars without cringing a little at some of the costume choices. Why would anyone wear black when facing laser fire? Why do the laser specialists in the Death Star wear black? Why do most of the good guys wear dark colors too? How do stormtroopers ever get hit in reflective white armor? How does the Death Star laser hit…anything?

Looking Forward

With all the missteps, the long hours and the bad competition experience, it is really worth putting maker time into my school work. Even though I did not get where I expected to be, the journey was full of fun maker time, and it was the first big project in my new makerspace. Most people don’t use servos in their laser cutters, so if I do another laser cutting project I might want to try other kinds of motors too. I am learning a lot about other kinds of motors now in my remote control and 3D printing projects. I also want to learn visual target tracking. Does anyone know of software for the pi that finds a dot on the paper, and then cut it? How about a moving dot?

Please take a look at my laser build in the five articles that I wrote, the main article is the story of the project. These three articles (1, 2, 3) are the instructions for building the laser platform.

My school project “board” presentation is available is also available for the public to see.

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Elijah Horland

Elijah Horland is an avid Minecraft player, an accomplished novice builder, a raspberry pi enthusiast, and an urban explorer. Currently studying kayaking and street-luge for the summer, you can follow his travels at http://www.notabomb.org

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