Innovative Howard Connect students transform face mask experience with micro:bit technology

Updated: Apr 6

Due to the pandemic, people are no strangers to wearing face masks - it has been the norm for several months now. Although in-person learning has experienced its share of communication barriers, we are now seeing innovative alternatives to enhance mask communication from students at Howard Connect Academy. Students have found a work around to express themselves. The solution? Incorporating coding and micro:bit technology into each personalized face mask.

Students with their micro:bit masks

Scott Rosenow, the school’s digital fabrication specialist (a.k.a. invention discovery designer), works with students in their school space known as the invention collaboratory – a laboratory of invention, innovation, and experience. When Rosenow planned to introduce electronics to his seventh grade students, he wanted them to have the opportunity to create something tangible instead of just simply using the technology. That’s when SparkFun’s micro:bit inventor kits came into play. Wearing face masks presented problems reading facial expressions, as well as understanding what others were saying. Thus, what started as learning basic micro:bit functions and programming, turned into brainstorming new ways students could communicate better with each other.


The matrix is about 1inx1in. Students create an oval shape, laser them onto cardboard inserts, and hot glue them like a pocket. The microbit slides right into the mask from there. To avoid sharing and promote safe use, each one is labeled with the student's name.

When students began looking at innovative solutions with their micro:bit kits, the thought of incorporating technology to better express themselves through their masks intrigued them. They began exploring basic tasks at first, making animated shapes, symbols, and even their own names appear across the micro:bit screen. “We then realized with the new micro:bit version, which PEF was able to lend to us to use and test, we could use features to turn what we’d been learning into a chat message with its built-in radio function,” shared Rosenow.


Students enjoyed learning how to create expressions that were no longer static. Thinking of the LED light as a strand of code, they would program it to animate what type of expression they were conveying underneath those masks. Once they explored the possibilities with animation, they advanced their learning by programming expressive melodies. For example, some students learned how to code the JAWS movie melody to express fright. Each discovery helped students dig deeper in exploring the creative features micro:bit encompasses and how that could positively impact their daily communication. “Students became excited about the project and exploring ideas on their own,” said Rosenow. “It started sparking other innovative ideas in their mind and allowed opportunities for creative expression of what they actually thought or felt. It really helped them enjoy wearing a mask throughout the school day.”


For virtual learners, Rosenow shared how makecode.org kept learning engaging. Remote students could build everything virtually, practicing the scale of programming at home. Then, once they are able to be in the school, can pair it with the micro:bit to test in-person.


Another impactful piece of the project for students? It gave them a tangible product they were proud to show others. “Their success at building a program and turning it into a usable, functional thing was very visible,” shared Rosenow, “and the fact they wanted to share their work with someone else acknowledged that they felt successful.” Students were even receiving requests from others in the school asking for a micro:bit mask, including the school nurse. “They thought it was awesome to hear that other people wanted what they were creating, too.” Over the course of five weeks, the discovery part of the process became very rewarding for students. In the beginning, they thought this was something they could never do. This notion quickly transformed into excitement of not only showing others what they had learned to make, but also being proud to wear what they created.

*Photos contributed by Scott Rosenow.

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