Young people with an interest in electronics still have a cornucopia of kits to start with.
As a youngster I had a crystal radio that picked up several local stations I listened to with a small headphone. You can still buy crystal-radio kits and many cost under $20. The Xtal Set Society's www.midnightscience.com Web site offers seven crystal radio kits, including the Oat Box Radio built on a cylindrical oatmeal container. As the kit description notes, you wind a coil on the box and mount components on a template that wraps around the box. You supply the box – after you eat the oatmeal. (XS-OB1, $12.95). The Xtal Set Society offers membership and a bimonthly newsletter for $US 14.95 per year.
If you have a youngster who might like a deeper introduction to electronics, look at the DIY Design "Discover Electronics!" package ($US 49.99) from Sparkle Labs. This kit includes a solderless breadboard and 130 components for basic projects. A 9-V battery will power the circuits. The 32-page illustrated manual shows young people what the components look like – each component type comes in its own envelope with an illustration and the corresponding schematic-diagram symbol. While working with the components, young experimenters learn what the components do, how they work, and what a circuit looks like. The instructions also juxtapose a diagram of the breadboarded circuit with its schematic diagram. Learn more and watch an informative video about the kit at: kits.sparklelabs.com.
For experimenters who want to get more involved with digital electronics and microcontrollers, Nuts and Volts magazine has put together a package that includes a Microchip PICkit 2 Starter Kit and three books. One book provide a collection of 12 articles from 2006 by Chuck Hellebuyck whose "Getting Started with PIC's" column continues to run in the magazine. The other two books "Beginner's Guide to Embedded C Programming" and "Beginner's Guide to Embedded C Programming, Volume 2" offer information about programming PIC-family MCUs. You can buy the package at the Nuts and Volts online store: store.nutsvolts.com. (SKU16889, $US 155.)
You can take a step up and buy a package from Microchip Technology that includes a PICkit 3 debugger/programmer pod, a 44-pin demo board with a PIC18F45K20 MCU, and a CD-ROM that includes 12 lessons with C code, a debugging tutorial, Microchip's MPLAB development tools, and the Lite Mode version of the HI-TECH C Compiler Pro. That looks like a nice buy at $US 69.99. The PIC MCU families have a lot of support on the Internet for professionals and hobbyists. www.microchip.com/pickit3.
I have written about the Arduino project, a combination of open-source software and open-design hardware that uses an Atmel ATMega microcontroller (www.dev-monkey.com/blogs/jon_titus.php?mid=629). You also can read more about the project at www.arduino.cc, the main site for the Arduino-user community. Programmers use the Arduino language, which looks a lot like C. Smiley Micros (www.smileymicros.com) has put together a projects kit ($US 79.95) that includes an Arduino board, solderless breadboard, components, but no tutorial or examples. You can find that type of information elsewhere, though. The book, "Getting Started with Arduino," by Massimo Banzi, ISBN: 9780596155513, provides start-up assistance.
HVW Technologies has put together a basic Freeduino Starter Bundle ($US 49.00) and a more advanced Ultimate version ($US 82). You also can buy individual Arduino boards from HVW for $US 26. www.hvwtech.com.
Eventually, any electronics experimenter or hobbyist must make measurements and generate signals. Syscomp Electronic Designs offers a neat 7-in-1 instrument that works with the Windows, MAC-OS, or Linux operating systems. The Circuit Gear (CGR-101, $US 179) instrument operates as a 20-MSample/sec dual-channel scope, 2-MHz DDS arbitrary-waveform generator, 8-channel digital signal generator/logic analyzer. Learn more at: www.syscompdesign.com/circuitgear.htm. You can buy direct or go to Saelig (www.saelig.com) and order from them after you browse through the company's collection of interesting products.
A Few Other Kit Sources
The Maker Shed, from MAKE magazine, offers electronics and science enthusiasts and experimenters many kits and projects that range from a first soldering project up to a complex programmable-logic device (CPDL) dev kit. Visit: www.makershed.com and look under Make Kits and then under All Kits.
You will find dozens of electronic kits at CanaKits (www.canakit.com). I couldn't find a way to view instructions for the kits and the site doesn't rate the skill level needed to build each kit.
Bakatronics sells kits geared for the model-railway enthusiast. The BK-202 Ultimate Welder Kit, for example, simulates a track-side welding operation with sounds, "sparks," and glowing-iron effects, all controlled by a microprocessor. But the company also sells audio, telephone, sound-effect, and general-interest kits. Visit: www.bakatronics.com.
I have used breadboards from Velleman and was pleasantly surprised to find the company also sells a variety of electronic kits and modules. www.vellemanusa.com/us/enu.