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 .