Project Nightlight

“Project Nightlight:  Creating Interactive Art and Technology Project”

David Held,, 914-474-1248, Poughkeepsie Day School


Project Nightlight is a unit in which students design, build and program a 3D printed computer programmable night light. The project was taught in a middle school art class. The purpose of this project is to engage students in an authentic and meaningful project with a well-defined and functional outcome. The learning goals for students include understanding the basics designing a physical object, gaining a simple understanding of electronics and computer programming.. Students need not have any previous experience in 3D modeling or programming.


The goal put to students is to design a nightlight, that will cast patterned shadows. They are instructed that the design of the nightlight must house the physical components of a microcontroller, a set of RGB LEDS, and a button. The wiring diagram of the components is given to the students. Students are told that they must program to microcontroller to detect button presses. When a button press is detected, the pattern of the lights change. They are instructed that there must be at least six “light states”; all LEDs on with white light, all LEDS off, and four moving colored  light patterns of their own design.

Students learn to build a 3D structure using a free 3D design software, such as Tinkercad, 123Design, or Once the design is printed on a 3D printer, students then install the electronic components into their printed design. Students taught the circuit diagram and the function of each component. The last phase of the project is for  students write a computer program to change and customize the light sequences. In programming what they have built, students learn the interactions between hardware and software. Software templates are provided to students and examples are presented that demonstrate programming control structures for them to modify.


The materials required for this project are access to a 3D printer (or recycled materials if a 3D printer is not available), one Adafruit Trinket microcomputer ($6), one Adafruit Neopixel stick ($7), a button ($0.50), and some wire. The tools are a soldering iron, solder, wire cutter and wire strippers. If your school does have or want students to solder, then the project could be done with conductive wire glue available from Radio Shack or other suppliers.  


When a student feels that they have completed a project. The teacher reviews the nightlight with the student. They review the decisions that went into the design of the structure, going over the 3D model in software. This way the teacher can see if the student can manipulate objects in the software.  The teacher then reviews the student’s knowledge of the hardware and software. The student might be asked a series of questions, such as “if I moved this wire to here, what in the software would have to change” to test their knowledge of the hardware/software interactions. Finally, the software is reviewed by the teacher looking at variable naming conventions, commenting, and efficiency of the code.

This project appeals to students at many levels. It engages students in a variety of skill sets – design, construction, problem-solving, understanding circuitry and  programming.  Success in the project involves grasping all the aspects of the design and production phases as well as the creation of a unique and functional nightlight.

Several students may have a proclivity towards different aspects of the project. Some students excel in design and construction techniques, while others have a knack for computer programming. Cooperation and collaboration are encouraged so students can help each other in the different aspects of the project. The main goal is for all students to complete a working nightlight with a full understanding of each phase. If students received help, they still must complete an oral comprehension evaluation.

Students work is checked after the successful completion of each step of the project; design, wiring of the circuit and programming. At the conclusion of the project, the teacher reviews the project with each student in an oral examination to assess their understanding of the hardware and software and recommends and reviews the process against a rubric (see below). This project is most appropriate for middle school age students.

Design/Creativity Construction Programming Effort & Perseverance
Planned design incorporating shadow & light Components wired correctly Program is written in a clear and logical manner Follows directions
Design adequately fits electronic components Correct colored wires used (red ­ 5v, black ­ ground, other ­ data) Control structures are used correctly On ­task for entire class period
Unusual solution to problem Wires properly stripped of insulation (1⁄4”) Variable names are make sense Project was successfully completed
Skillful use of the software Soldering done correctly Comments are clarifying and complete Project completed on time
Program executes as intended without errors


Students must use  critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making to design a tangible, original product using the technology of 3D printing and computer programing.

Students develop several skills in the course of  Project Nightlight based on the ISTES standards. The project requires students to use their creativity and innovation in the creation of  an original work (ISTES 1b).  The project draws on the underlying complex system of design, hardware and software and students must grasp this in order to complete the project. (ISTES1c).

Each student develops a unique nightlight. In the process of doing so students  needs to share and communicate their ideas and process. the work requires them to collaborate and solve common problems together (ISTES 2d). As a result students learn from each other and see different solutions to common problems on the way to project completion (ISTES 4 b & d).

In the final programming phase of the project, students learn computer operations and how hardware and software interact with each other. Students must learn to diagnose problems as hardware or software and then resolve them. (ISTES 6a, b & c). Success hinges on their ability to do this.

Most of all students enjoy working on this project integrating creativity and technology (ISTES 5b).


In adding creativity to a STEAM curriculum, students can learn basic electronics and computer programing while creating a useful interactive project. When students use their creativity, there is no limit to what they can learn. In an Art and Technology course, students delve into the Maker Movement, learn computer programming, engineering, design and electronics while stretching their imagination and  problem solving abilities.

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