Make a Binary Paper Chain

Humans have lots of different ways to communicate. We can speak, write a letter, or use sign language. But have you ever wondered how computers talk and think? If you’ve ever seen a spy movie, chances are you’ve seen someone “hack” into a computer on a screen like this:

What’s with all the 1s and 0s? Computers are run using something called “binary”. Inside a computer are tons of really tiny switches. When you see a 0, that means a switch is OFF. When you see a 1, that means a switch is ON.

If humans want to communicate with a computer, we have to translate our letters into 0s and 1s. For example, the letter “s” is represented by eight different numbers: 10001100.

In this activity, we are going to make a paper chain that spells a word using binary. What you’ll need:

  • Decoder key
  • Construction paper (3 colours)
  • Scissors
  • Stapler or glue stick

First, choose a short word that you would like to spell. I chose the word “sparky”. Next, use the decoder key to figure out what each letter would look like in binary. Here is what the letter “s” looks like:

In this key, a black box means 0 and a white box means 1. So in binary, an “s” would look like: 10001100.

Now, let’s make this into a paper chain. Cut your construction paper into strips. You will need three different colours (at least 30 strips of two of the colours, and 10 strips of the third colour, depending on what you are going to spell).

Then start to build your paper chain. The letter “s” starts with 0 (or a white box), so I used a white piece of paper. Roll it into a loop, then staple or glue the ends together. This loop represents the information stored in a single switch inside of a computer, which is called a “bit”.

Now add the next bit. For the letter “s” this is a 0 (or a black box), so I used a black piece of paper. Thread the next piece of paper through the first loop, roll it, then staple or glue the ends together.

Continue adding bits until you have finished the first letter. There will be eight loops in total, representing eight switches inside a computer. This is called a “byte”. Staple a different coloured loop to the end of your byte. This will help you tell the letters apart when you complete your word.

 Continue adding bytes until you have completed your word!

Once you are finished, see if someone else can decode your word. You can also test your skills at decoding by checking out page 10 of your book (can you spot the binary?):

We hope you enjoyed this activity! It was inspired by a seminar from Let’s Talk Science, a wonderful STEM outreach initiative in Canada. If you want to try something different, you can also use beads instead (use different coloured beads to represent each bit, and thread them onto a string). This activity is based on the book If: Ball, Then: Catch.

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