Virtual Smoke Signals

Virtual Smoke Signals

Lesson Overview: Teenagers today live in an incredible world where they can connect with people across the globe in a matter of seconds. Communication has never before been so easy! This activity will be taking our teenagers back in time when communication using technology was much more primitive. This lesson will provide a meaningful challenge in that students will be using littleBits to send a “secret code”. In effect, students will not only be bolstering their reasoning skills, but will also be laying down the foundation for thinking like a programmer, thus reinforcing skills necessary for coding and programming.

Lesson Objectives: This lesson utilizes a problem-based approach by having students create an alphabetical code with their team, and will end with students communicating a secret code-word that will put their code to the test!

Assessment Strategies: Formative: Students are engaged in activity, work well with team mates, and demonstrate knowledge of littlebits by constructing devices which achieve the lesson objective.

Summative: Students successfully send at least 3 “Secret words” using their littleBits and their code. Code created by team is viable and can be used for sending any word given.

Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.1, MS-ETS1-1

Duration: 45+ minutes

Middle School (ages 11-13)
High School (ages 14-17)


English Language Arts
General Education


STEP 1 : Begin with a Game

Boost student engagement by beginning the activity section with a communication game. “Charades” or “Telephone” are great introductory games to discussing how messages can sometimes be lost in translation. Before facilitating the lesson, research these and other communication games that can provide meaningful connections to the challenges of communication.

STEP 2 : Dive into Discussion!

First, ask students to think of popular ways we communicate today (cellphone, social media, etc.) Now ask: how did people communicate 200 years ago? Students may say letter writing. Now challenge students: how could you communicate with a neighboring house 200 years ago if you couldn’t send a letter and you couldn’t meet them in person? Some students may suggest leaving a coded message somewhere. If smoke signals are not given as a suggestion then ask if students have ever heard of smoke signals. If not, explain that people used to use smoke from a fire to send a coded message. By covering and uncovering smoke, villages could communicate if they were under attack or needed supplies.

STEP 3 : The Challenge

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Example of student-created secret code

Introduce the challenge: explain that students must find a way, using littleBits, to send virtual “smoke signals” to each other. Students will be creating a secret code, and, once the code is created, will be sending a secret word using their code. The students must communicate using littleBits. Lights and noise making devices are excellent in diversifying a code. Students may even choose to utilize the infrared bits! Explain that, since they will be communicating a word, an alphabetical-based code is the best way to ensure that the message can be encrypted and decoded easily. (Tip: Students who use a Morse-code style code will have a much better chance of communicating successfully. Guide students towards using “place holders as markers”. A buzz for tens-place numbers and flashes for ones-place numbers can make a “z” much easier to send than 26 individual motions.) Break students into groups of at least 2. Give students a minimum of 15 minutes to create a code, though you may find the students need more time. Students may be any distance apart. If students wish to communicate with one circuit “talking” to another circuit for a more advanced challenge, go for it!

STEP 4 : Put Your Code to the Test!

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These ladies had a blast creating their code and sending messages with littleBits!

Ensure each team has 2 pieces of paper and writing utensils, as they will need these for writing a code and copying the code. Be sure you have extra sheet available, as students may need to erase or restart. Once students have completed their code, they must determine a “sender” and “receiver for their team. Encourage them to practice a few words on their own. Once the teams have their roles determined and have practiced a few words, go ahead and give the “sender” the secret word. The teacher/facilitator is the keeper of the secret word. Short, simple words are key for helping students feel successful. Should students desire a challenge, you may give more difficult words. Simple words suggestions include: sofa, snow, belt, bear, zero. More complex words can be: umbrella, orange, clarinet. If students desire, provide more words for them to try. Encourage role reversal!

STEP 5 : Debrief

Debrief the activity with your students by having a closing discussion. Some questions to pose your students might include: a. What worked well with your code? What was challenging? b. How could you modify your circuits to improve communication?