Kits for Kids 2008
With summer vacation on the way, keep kids occupied with engineering-like activities and projects.
Decades ago as the school year wound down, my brother Chris and I assembled lists of electrical equipment, chemical apparatus and chemicals needed for summer projects. When school ended, we hopped on the Long Island Rail Road for a trip to New York City’s Canal Street, known for its many surplus dealers. And we took home many bags of “stuff,” as our mother called it. With summer vacation closing in, it’s time to think about projects to keep kids occupied and learning — although they might not realize it.
Young people interested in programming might enjoy the software path from assembly language to C++ offered by John Kopplin at Computer Science Lab. An inexpensive ($19.95) CD-ROM includes three integrated development environments (IDEs) and debuggers for three languages. The self-teaching programs have garnered compliments from educators and engineers. Instead of working with — and blowing out — I/O devices, budding programmers run experiments on simulated hardware. This package looks like a fun way to expose kids to computers and programming on several levels. www.computersciencelab.com .
If high-school students have a deeper interest in programming, take a look at C Programming for the Absolute Beginner (2nd ed.), by Michael A. Vine and published by Thomson Course Technology. The author uses the Cygwin programming environment, which lacks the bells and whistles of a full-blown IDE. That means readers don’t get overwhelmed with menus and choices. The book appears aimed directly at first-time “programmers.” Price: $27. www.courseptr.com .
The “Penguin Robot” from Parallax stands at 4” tall, executes Basic-language commands and comes in a variety of colors.
In my previous “Kits for Kids” column (August 2007), I mentioned the Parallax BoeBot robot. Parallax has a new robot, the “Penguin Robot” (see photo) that stands about 40 tall and executes Basic-language commands. The $200 robot kit comes with all needed parts — including rechargeable batteries — and a Parallax BASIC Stamp 2px microcontroller. I like to use Parallax equipment as a way to introduce youngsters and non-engineers to hardware and software. The company offers an array of products for beginners and advanced designers. In addition, an extensive line of books and accessories ensures enthusiasts never run out of interesting projects. The company’s products serve well in classrooms, too. www.parallax.com 
Joel Baumert at Digi International pointed me to Snap Circuits, which offers 100-in-1 (SC-100) and 300-in-1 (SC-300) experiment kits that provide pre-mounted components that snap into a plastic grid and use pre-formed conductors to complete circuits. The 100-in-1 kit includes many basic-electricity “experiments,” that provide a circuit to assemble and operate. I’m not sure how much kids learn from this type of kit, but for $30 it provides a way to expose them to electronics in simple steps. Worth a look for kids who like gadgets. www.snapcircuits.net .
The Tech8 Web site lists several kits Bill Jenkins of Burnaby, B.C., Canada designed to interest middle-school kids in electronics. Basic kits include a sound-generator and several LED-flasher circuits. For under $5, you can’t beat these kits as starters for other projects. Ask for drilled PCBs if you don’t have a Dremel tool or other small drill handy. (Kids should learn how to use tools, too.) www.tech8.ca  and www.ezr2000plus.com .
Last year, several people mentioned the PICAXE chips and kits as a means to learn about microcontrollers. These products come from Revolution Education in the U.K. (www.rev-ed.co.uk/picaxefaq.html ). Hobbyists and developers can buy a variety of boards and tools. Unfortunately, distributors in the U.S. carry only a small number of PICAXE products.
I recently received a catalog from Kelvin, a company I hadn’t heard of. The catalog lists many projects and kits meant for schools and individuals. From catalog descriptions, some projects require adult help and supervision. www.kelvin.com 
For a variety of robot kits, check out the Jameco Electronics Web site at www.robotstore.com . Although Jameco sells many components, its robots seem well hidden. Thanks to Fred Boatwright for this site information.
Electronic enthusiasts, and even some engineers, will enjoy a subscription to “Nuts and Volts” magazine, a monthly that costs $25 per year. The ads are often as interesting as the articles. www.nutsvolts.com .
High-school students interested in robotics might enjoy “Servo” magazine, a monthly publication that describes construction projects and new products. Many projects fall into the advanced or expert categories. Price: $25/year. www.servomagazine.com . For newcomers to robotics, take a look at “Robot” magazine, a quarterly that covers advanced topics and a few beginner projects. Price: $20/year. www.botmag.com .
Carnegie Mellon University sponsors a Robotics Academy to help educators learn about robotics curricula and teaching materials. The academy’s Web site supports Vex and Lego robots and serves as a resource center for teachers. If you want to interest a local school in an in- or after-school robotics group, start research at: www.education.rec.ri.cmu.edu .
Project Lead The Way offers engineering-course materials for schools that want to better prepare students for demanding two- and four-year engineering college careers. The program is fully subscribed for the 2008-2009 school year, but to influence budgets, parents should get involved now for the following school year. www.pltw.org .
If we missed companies, materials, courses and other information you think would help kids develop an interest in engineering, send information to: firstname.lastname@example.org .