Kits for Kids
by Jon Titus, Senior Technical Editor
I'll begin this column with a recommendation: Start kits with a set of basic hand tools. When my son went to college, he had tools to hang pictures, connect TV sets and CD players, and tighten desks and shelves. As a result, he met most of the people on his co-ed floor. When our daughter went to college she got a tool kit, too. I suggest Phillips and flat-blade screwdrivers, pliers, diagonal cutters, wire strippers and a couple of adjustable wrenches. Later you could add a set of nut drivers, sockets wrenches and an inexpensive soldering iron.
Now on to new kits: Bill Jenkins has updated his Tech8 Web site (www. tech8.ca) that shows the small electronic kits and circuit boards his company offers. He recently added a Winker "Robot" PCB. Bill's site also links to eLabtronics information about Microchip PIC projects for young people who have support from adults with some technical experience. After youngsters complete a project they can click a button and export a schematic to EZRoute2000, a PCB layout program. If they want prototype boards, many short-run PCB houses can produce them from the EZRoute2000 files.
While looking for new kits, I found the Zeus Mercantile Web site (www.zeusmercantile.com) that shows three BrainBox electronic learning stations. (Click BrainBox under CATEGORIES.) Chris Taylor, the owner works as a mechanical engineer and imports the kits that let youngsters easily and quickly construct circuits. Chris noted, "San Juan College in New Mexico has used the smaller kits in a summer program for kids and I have used them to demonstrate basic electronic principles to my nieces. The one flaw the kits have is the manual. Color-coded instructions makes it easy to build circuits, but the manuals lack an explanation of what goes on in a circuit or how to apply the circuit in practical devices. I don't think you could hand a kit to a youngster and expect them to pick up fundamentals of electronics on their own."
Chris also noted the XGameStation Web site (www.xgamestation.com) as a source of electronic-game boards and consoles for advanced experimenters, so I contacted Andre Lemothe, the company's CEO. He explained that the company's MACH64 product is a hands-on "learn by doing" kit for teenagers who can follow instructions about how to connect wires for each of the labs and compile and download programs. The kit starts with a blinking LED and ends with the skeleton of a Pong-like game on the board's CPLD. Lamothe said, "Some of the theory might go over the kids' heads. But when I was five or six and got my first electronics kit from Radio Shack and built an oscillator circuit, I didn't understand the criteria for oscillation, feedback and so on. I just built the circuit and had a lot of fun." Teenagers and adults needs to understand that the MACH64 kit will teach them about configurable or programmable logic. If they like that objective, then this is a great kit, which comes with a 250-page manual. www.xgamestation.com/products/mach64kit/downloads/MACH64_Manual_Sample_v1_0.pdf
MadLabs in Scotland offers a variety of simpler kits, graded for beginner, intermediate and advanced experimenters. James Hutchby of MadLabs sent along an email to explain that Apogee Kits (www.apogeekits.com) in Texas sells many of the MadLabs kits in the US. Apogee also sells soldering tools and a few non-electronic products. It's worth your time to visit the company's Web site.
Richard Arndt, a long-time engineer, told me he still enjoys the aroma of melting solder and the warmth of a glowing vacuum tube. And he suggested readers take a look at "Silicon Chip," an Australian magazine (www.siliconchip.com.au) that described many interesting electronic projects. A subscription costs about $US 63 per year. Arndt said, "Silicon Chip has partnered with AutoSpeed Magazine to develop a number of kits for auto enthusiasts. My son and I are using the DIY ECU MegaSquirt II (www.megamanual.com) from on a Volvo and a turbo’ed 5.0 Mustang, so we have learned quite a bit about engine management." Arndt also said, "I can’t think of a better way to trigger the creative minds of our children than with educational kits."
Youngsters and parents may have heard of the First LEGO League (FLL), an international hands-on and interactive robotics program for kids from nine to 14. James Floyd Kelly and Jonathan Daudelin note that FLL is a kind of geek Olympics that combines a sporting event and science fair. But, FLL is not meant as a simple competition, and fielding a team requires some serious management and plenty of work, so they wrote a new book, "FIRST LEGO League: The Unofficial Guide," published by No Starch Press, (ISBN 9781593271855). The book offers participants some guidance as they create and manage a team. Sounds like a project that requires some adult participation.
Lego--the company--has a new WeDo package available for kids in elementary schools. I've written about this kit elsewhere and won't duplicate information here. Visit: www.dev-monkey.com/blogs/jon_titus.php?mid=324
If we missed companies, materials, courses and other information you think would help kids develop an interest in engineering, send information to: email@example.com.