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Kits for Kids

Mon, 05/23/2011 - 7:07am
Jon Titus, Senior Technical Editor

A few electronic projects can keep kids occupied during the summer break.

Jon TitusSummer vacation arrives soon and parents will have to come up with activities and projects to keep kids busy. Why not consider some electronic kits, boards, tools, and books?

MindWare sells a variety of educational "brainy" toys, games, puzzles, and kits for young people. The company's Web site lets parents -- and kids -- search for products by age categories, from 2 to 12+, so you don't have to determine that from a short description and photo. Product descriptions have ratings and comments. Worth a look if you want all-in-one packaged fun. www.mindware.com.

If you have a youngster interested in robotics, you might need a brushed-DC-motor power controller such as the Pololu Simple High-Power Motor Controller (#1373) that lets you perform configuration operations over a USB connection with the company's free Motor Control Center software. The board can handle as many as 7 A for voltages between 5.5 V and 30 V without a heat sink. (The data sheet doesn't specify whether the controller can handle 7 A at 30 V, though.) The controller can use one of four input signals for motor control: USB, serial (3.3 V), analog voltage, or hobby radio control. Price: $31.95. www.pololu.com

Figure 1. A robot with brushed-DC motors can use a Pololu power controller and free configuration software to set up operations for remote-controlled maneuvers.

Parallax has a new Robot Base Kit ($39.99) that comes in 1/4-in. black (#28977) or white (#28976) high-density polyethylene that a builder can use for indoor or outdoor autonomous robots. The kit supplies a base plate, battery shelf, and a set of mounting hardware for a 12-V motor mount and wheel kit (#27971) and two caster-type wheel kits (#28971) sold separately. Pre-drilled holes accept Parallax Ping ultrasonic distance sensors and you can easily drill holes and create cut-outs as needed. www.parallax.com

If you have yet to introducing a young person to microcontrollers, the Arduino Uno module has a lot to offer at low cost. The new book, "Arduino: A Quick-Start Guide," by Maik Schmidt (Pragmatic Bookshelf, $35.00) gets beginners off to a quick start. According to the publisher, first-time Uno experimenters can create their first project in only a few minutes. Step-by-step instructions and photos help kids create a motion-sensing game controller with a three-axis accelerometer, build a burglar alarm that sends emails, and create their own projects. And "What If It Doesn't Work" sections help troubleshoot common problems. www.oreilly.com

For a microcontroller whiz who needs a new challenge, go to the MakerShed and look for the XGS AVR 8-Bit Development System (#MKNN2, $89.99), which provides a platform for basic game developments. The kit comes with a copy of "Inside the XGS AVR 8-Bit," a user manual and programming guide by André LaMothe. The kit includes a power cube, XGS gamepad, cables, and a DVD with source code, four ebooks, and tools. The Atmel ATmega644 AVR processor supplies 64 Kbytes of flash and 4 Kbytes of SRAM. www.makershed.com. The Maker Shed also sells Arduino Uno modules and many other interesting products.

When working with digital electronics, a small logic analyzer can help troubleshoot circuits and software and give young people opportunities to see what digital signals look like. I recently bought a Saleae Logic logic-analyzer module ($149) to monitor several serial signals. The small instrument doesn't have sophisticated trigger capabilities, but it decodes UART, SPI, and I2C communications and makes them easy to "read" in hex, decimal, or ASCII formats. And you can monitor as many as eight inputs. www.saleae.com

If you want to experiment with a logic analyzer itself, the Open Bench Logic Sniffer board ($45) and free open-source SUMP software, written in Java, give you that opportunity. For information about SUMP, visit: www.sump.org. The Sniffer board uses a Xilinx FPGA that samples at 200 Msamples/sec. and uses a USB connection to a host PC that runs the SUMP software. You can monitor 32 inputs of which 16 are buffered and tolerate 5-V inputs. The unbuffered signals connect directly to the FPGA. http://dangerousprototypes.com/2010/02/25/prototype-open-logic-sniffer-logic-analyzer-2/.

Elenco Electronics offers many 'Snap Circuits' kits with components and tutorials. http://www.elenco.com/snapcircuits.html

EDN magazine recently published a logic-probe circuit that uses inexpensive components. See "Logic Probe Uses Six Transistors," at: http://www.edn.com/article/511762-Logic_probe_uses_six_transistors.php. You can build this circuit on a small piece of perf board or even use a solderless breadboard. It looks like a handy tool.

If your interests run to retro kits or you still like the orange glow of neon lamps, you and a youngster might have fun with a Nixie-tube digital clock. Nuts and Volts magazine sells the "Nixie Tube Clock Kit" ($159.95) and the "NixieNeon Clock Kit" ($159.95). The latter has over 400 components. http://store.nutsvolts.com/home.php. Look for the "Project Kits" selection and then "Clock Kits."

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