Kits for Kids
Each year the holidays seem to arrive sooner than expected and parents of young people interested in science and technology search for gift ideas. This column provides some suggestions. Some projects require adult help or supervision.
The BASIC Stamp computer modules from Parallax now work with many of the add-on "shields" created for the popular Arduino microcontroller boards. These shields, or add-on boards, handle digital and analog I/O, servo-motor control, wireless communications, and other functions. The Parallax StampDuino board (27140, $30) provides a socket for a BASIC-Stamp-2 module (2143, $49) and connectors for shields. New programmers can use the free BASIC language from Parallax to control shields. (All prices in US dollars.)
Parallax has published excellent reference and educational books that help young people--and adults--learn to program and control real-world devices. Companies such as Sparkfun Electronics and Adafruit sell a variety of Arduino shields and kits.
Sparkfun has a new electronic device that lets elementary- and middle-school students interact with a PC via touch controls. The MaKey MaKey board--no, that's not a Hawaiian saying--lets young experimenters turn almost anything into a keyboard. (OK, now you'll get it; "make-key.") A video on the Sparkfun site shows how to connect six bananas to a PC to create a piano. The MaKey MaKey kit comes in two versions, standard (WIG-11085, $40), and deluxe (WIG-11322, $50). The deluxe kit includes extra jumper wires and alligator clips as well as copper-foil tape so experimenters can create their own touch controls. The Media Lab at MIT came up with the idea for the MaKey MaKey board, which includes a microcontroller (MCU) that detects touches and communicates with a PC via a USB cable (supplied).
SparkFun also has an "Inventor's Kit," that includes an Arduino Uno microcontroller board, a breadboard and components such as LEDs, DC motor, servo motor, photocell, and so on. I mentioned this kit last year and continue to like it. See: http://www.ecnmag.com/articles/2011/09/kits-kids .
High-school students interested in programming might like the Microchip PICDEM Lab Development Kit (DM163045, $135) for 8-bit MCUs. The kit includes five different MCU chips for experimenting. I have used this kit with PIC16F690 MCUs and it works well. Microchip has free software tools (MPLAB X) for PCs and Macs. The kit user manual has a few minor glitches, so download my 17-page updates and corrections here: http://tinyurl.com/9nxenze. For more PICDEM kit information, visit: http://tinyurl.com/9duaz2j 
Microchip also offers a free download of the Matrix Multimedia Flowcode (v3). This software lets people use a flow-chart graphical user interface to create code. I have used Flowcode and liked working with it. For information, visit: http://www.matrixmultimedia.com/ . Matrix Multimedia also sells a variety of MCU development boards.
You can find many interesting MCU experimenter boards at MikroElektronika. The EasyPIC V7 ($149), for example, comes with a PIC18F45K22 MCU chip, but it can program more than 250 types of PIC devices. The board includes switches, pushbuttons, and pin headers for each I/O port, as well as an in-circuit debugger (ICD) section. Not all PIC MCUs have ICD capabilities, so MikroElektronika lists compatible PIC MCUs for each board on its web site. The board also furnishes two sockets for small "Click" boards that provide functions such as analog-to-digital converters, RS-485 serial ports, real-time clocks, and a GPS receiver.
Students more interested in science than electronics might like the book, "Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments," by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson. O'Reilly Media, ISBN: 978-1-4493-3451-2, $35. For book information, visit: http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920026181.do .
More than 50 hands-on lab experiments show how readers can analyze samples of soil, hair, and fibers, test for gunshot residue, match pollen and diatom samples, and so on. Students can do many experiments without special chemicals and apparatus, although the authors recommend a "Forensic Science Laboratory Kit," which costs $247. That price probably means a school must buy a kit and and have a teacher supervise experiments. Find the kit's list of contents and a free download of the book at: http://www.thehomescientist.com/kits/FK01/fk01-main.html .
Carl's Electronics in Oakland, CA sells many types of electronics kits as well as assembled circuits in categories such as audio, electronic switches and controls, lights and lighting, test and measurement, and so on. Kit manuals include some tutorial-like information, but kids might need help from an adult with some electronics experience. For information: http://www.electronickits.com/ .
For more kits, visit Cana Kit , Ramsey Electronics  , Quality Kits , and Jaycar Electronics. 
Do you know of a kit I should write about? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org