A Proper Electronics Kit for Kids

My parents have this thing about science. They’re suckers for kits that promise to teach kids about science.

Not that my parents can’t do just fine on their own. Dad’s a professional engineer — a classic engineer, rather than what I learned. He fixed the car until the winters got too cold. He does load calculations for the cottage extension. He’s been an engineer-in-residence at local schools for years, spending hours making working locks and dams (desk-top size, which the kids put together), pinhole cameras, logic gates with switches and lightbulbs, winches, and a host of other projects. He’s the Robert Thomas of the Westport Outdoor Classroom.

However, when it comes to their grandkids, they got caught up with “kits”. You know the ones: Ten dollars and your kid can learn the mysteries of electricity and build an electronic motor boat, or an alarm system, or weave.

The electronic motor boat involved wrapping a fine (breakable) copper wire 50 times around each of three cores, then some trouble-shooting and soldering. Yep, every 10-year-old kid has a soldering iron lying around.

The alarm system was a black box (okay, yellow, but the technical description is “black box”), which you could connect in six different ways to shriek when a circuit broke.

The loom required a few hours with the milling machine in the basement, and more hours of sandpaper, because the grooves on the heddle weren’t deep enough, and the rough wood caught at the wool. I think it was the heddle; it moved the warp (long) threads. Really neat, actually. About 2 cm square. Each warp thread fed along a groove cut across one side, and around a corner. The grooves alternated — evens were deeper on one side, odds were deeper on the other. Rock it back and forth, and first one set lifted, then the other. Wikipedia doesn’t show anything like it.

But I digress.

The point of all this was that the kids learned that science required a kit designed by someone else, and often didn’t work. Even if you asked, “Why didn’t it work?” (as all great scientists do) you still learned next to nothing.

Until I remembered the 75-in-1 electronics kit I had as a kid. Mine was from what was then Radio Shack. Different lengths of wire, colour-coded by length. Various electronic bits on a board, connected underneath to terminals. Five or ten resistors, all lined up with the silver bands on the left (so you read the coloured bands left-to-right). Same with the capacitors. The board had the standard schematic symbols.

The manual started with a simple flashlight. You could follow the wiring instructions, and use a blue wire to connect terminals 32 and 20, or you could look at the schematic, and connect one end of the resistor to the positive side of the battery. Then it suggested enhancements, like adding a switch, or changing resistor size, or replacing the resistor with the variable resistor.

The great news is, we found a modern version by Maxitronix. Unfortunately, the manufacturer doesn’t seem to have a website — at least not according to Google.

Here’s the kit described by a store. It’s the perfect level for my 11-year-old son. My 8-year-old daughter, who can follow a cookie recipe, could follow it if she were interested. It wouldn’t be out of place in a first electronics class for 15-year-olds.

Google found several other Maxitronix kits. Some remind me of the old Heathkit kits, which are more about building and soldering than learning, but still fun. (I made an intercom set when I was 11.) The kits I checked include schematics.

My son’s doing this kit pretty much by himself. I try very hard to stay out of it, and let him discover things for himself. I’m not good at that. I usually suggest things to try, or explain things, and generally get in the way of him learning things for himself. So this kit is his!

Meanwhile, my parents have remembered something else: Kids don’t need science kits to learn to love science. Go for a walk and look at the animals. See if the berries in the shade ripened sooner than the ones in the sun. Design and build a shelf for the phone, so the phonebook can sit under it. Clean the lint trap from the washing machine. Make pinhole cameras from cereal boxes. In general — open your eyes and do things!

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