Scott Hanselman

Review: littleBits Gadgets and Gizmos electronics kits for STEM kids

January 21, '16 Comments [15] Posted in Parenting
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GGK_Box_Everything_600x400_v-2I love posting about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and some of the great resources, products, and software that we can use to better prepare the next generation of little techies.

Here's some previous posts I've done on the topics of STEM, kids, programming, and learning with young people:

The 8 year old (recently 7, now barely 8) has been playing with littleBits lately and having a blast. He loved SnapCircuits so littleBits seemed like a reasonable, if slightly higher-level, option.

SnapCircuits boldly has kids as young as three or four creating circuitry from a simple light and switch all the way up to a solar-powered radio or a burglar/door alarm. It doesn't hide the complexities of volts and amps and includes low-level components like resistors. Frankly, I wish my first EE (Electrical Engineering) class in college was taught with SnapCircuits.

LittleBits (usually a lowercase L) jumps up a layer of abstraction and includes motors, motion detectors, LED arrays, and lots more. There are also specific kits for specific interests like a littleBits Musical Electronics Synth Kit and a littleBits Smart Home Kit that include specific littleBits that extend the base kit.

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The key to littleBits is their magic magnet that makes it basically impossible to do something wrong or hurt yourself. The genius here is that the magnet only goes one way (because: magnets) and the connector underlying transmits both power and data.

You start with a power bit, then add an "if" statement like a switch, then move to do a "do" statement like a motor or light or whatever. In just about 20 minutes my 8 year old was able to take a LEGO custom Star Wars Blaster and add totally new functionality like lights and sounds..

The 8 year old wanted to show his Star Wars Blaster/Fan combo made with @littlebits #video

A video posted by Scott Hanselman (@shanselman) on


One of the aspects of littleBits that I think is powerful but that wasn't immediately obvious to me is that you shouldn't be afraid to use glue or more permanent attachments with your projects. I initially tried to attach littleBits with rubber bands and strings but realized that they'd smartly included "glue dots" and Velcro as well as 3M adhesive pads. Once we stopped being "afraid" to use these stickers and adhesives, suddenly little projects became semi-permanent technical art installations.

We got the "Gizmos & Gadgets" kit which is a little spendy, but it includes 15 bits that enables you to do basically anything. The instructions are great and we a had remote-controlled robot that could drive around the room running within an hour. It's a great setup, a fun kit, and something that kids 8-14 will use all the time.

Here are some fantastic examples of other Star Wars related littleBits projects for you to explore:

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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Getting Started with Robots for kids and children in STEM this holiday season

December 26, '14 Comments [27] Posted in Parenting
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Now's the perfect time to buy your kids/nieces/cousins some robots. Robots are a great way to get children excited about computers. Robots get them stoked in a way that a simple Hello World console app just can't.

If you're not careful you can spent hundreds on robots. However, I'm notoriously frugal and I believe that you can build some amazing stuff with children with a reasonable budget.

Here's some of the robot and electronics kits I recommend and have built with my kids.

4M Tin Can Robot

This is just a teaser but it's less than a trip to the movies. This silly little kit takes 2 AAA batteries and will take an aluminum can and animate it. It gets kids thinking about using found objects in their robots, as opposed to them thinking custom equipment is always required.

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Quadru-Bot 14-in-1 Solar Robot

One of the challenges is "what age should I start?" and "how complex of a robot can my __ year old handle?" Kits like this are nice because they are starting with batteries and gears and include two levels of building, basic and experienced. It's also a nice kit because it includes solar power as an option and also can work in water (the bath).

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OWI Robotic Arm Edge

This isn't a kit but it's a reasonably priced robotic arm to get kids thinking in terms of command and control and multiple dimensions. OWI also has a cool 3in1 robot RC kit if you prefer driving robots around and more "rebuildability."

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Mirobot

This Christmas my 7 year old and I built a Mirobot. You can get pre-soldered and solder-yourself kits. We got the main Mirobot Kit PLUS the Addons Kit which includes clever additional modules for Line Following, Sound, and Collision Detection.

The whole Mirobot execution is brilliant. The hardware and software are all open source, so if you want to acquire the parts and make it yourself you can. You can get kits in various levels of preassembly.

It's built on an Arduino but is preloaded with some very clever software that takes advantage of its onboard Wifi. You can program it in C with Arduino tools, of course, but for kids, they can use JavaScript and an in-browser editor, much like Logo. It will create its own ad-hoc wifi network by default, or you can join it to your home network.

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The creator is also building an Apps Platform so you can control the Mirobot from other apps within your browser and websocket your way over to the robot.

It took us about a weekend to build and you can see in the pic below that my 7 year old was able to install a pen and get the bot to draw a stickman. He was THRILLED.

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Edison

This isn't the Intel Edison, although you can make some great robots with it as well. No, this is Edison, a little LEGO compatible robot from the makers of Microbric, a great robot platform from a few years ago. I actually made a Microbric robot in 2007 and blogged about it.

Edison is fantastic and just $50. If you're a teacher and can get a multiples pack, you can get them as cheap as $35 each. You program Edison with a clean drag and drop icon system then download the program to your robot with a cable from your computer's headphone jack.

Out of the box you can have it follow a flashlight/torch, follow lines on paper, fight each other in a sumo ring, avoid walls, and lots more. In this picture there's two Edison's stacked on each other. The top one has the wheels removed and replaced with Lego elements to make robot arms.

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LEGO Mindstorms

OK, yes, LEGO Mindstorms are $350, so that's not exactly frugal. BUT, I've seen parents buy $500 iPads without a thought, why not consider a more tactile and engineering-focused gift for a girl or boy?

This is THE flagship. It's got Wifi, Bluetooth, color sensors, iPad apps, collision detection, motors galore and unlimited replayability. There's also a huge online community dedicated to taking Mindstorms to the next level. If you can swing it, it's worth the money and appropriate for anyone from 6 to 60.

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Snap Circuits

I couldn't love Snap Circuits more. I started with the Jr. Snap Circuits and we eventually graduated to Snap Circuits Pro. They are my #1 go-to gift idea for kids of friends and relatives.

While this isn't a robotics kit, per se, it really builds the basic understanding of batteries, electronics, and motors that kids will need to move to the next level.

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What robot kids do YOU recommend?

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Parenting Tip: Star Wars Audiobooks, Family, and narrator Marc Thompson

July 21, '14 Comments [23] Posted in Parenting
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The wife and the boys and I are often in the car for 30 minutes or more, heading off to various activities or events. We live pretty far outside of town, and when we need to head into the city, it's almost an hour. While we have lots of music, discussions, and what not, the boys aren't quite ready to listen to the unfiltered news.

 

BetrayalcoverMy buddy Dennis Petersen from LEGO recommended Star Wars audiobooks as a great way to pass the time as a family. I was a little suspicious, as I've listened to a lot of Audible audiobooks and it's been hit or miss. It all comes down to having a good narrator. Also, has the producer of the audio book decided that this would be a voice actor just reading the book or is this a radio production with music, voices, and sound effects.

The Star Wars Random House audiobooks with narrator Marc Thompson are AMAZING. My family and I have listened to nearly 50 hours of them and we still have a dozen and a half to go. These audiobooks strike a great balance between a dry reading (bad) and a the sounds of a movie (over the top). Marc Thompson does ALL the voices himself, and they are spot on. From Jabba to Boba Fett, C3PO to Darth Vader, we are consistently blown away by the quality of the voices. It's not distracting at all and it makes it much easier to follow the story.

You can buy any of the Star Wars audiobooks in Audible format at Amazon or as Audio CDs. You can also get them at iTunes. I recommend starting with the Star Wars: Legacy of the Force Series. The first book is #1 Betrayal. This starts 40 years the battle of Yavin when the first Death Star was destroyed. Leia and Han are married, they have two kids, and there's bunch of cool stuff going on.

Now at this point in the post, the non-Star Wars aficionados amongst you may have already checked out. But let me tell you this. My wife is NOT a Star Wars person. She couldn't care less. She slept through the movies. BUT, she loves these books. We'll get home from somewhere and she'll insist we sit in the driveway and finish a chapter. It's amazing.

The whole family has been having fun with these. It's much better (IMHO) than giving the kids an iPad or a DVD player on a long trip, and it's got us pausing the book and discussion galactic affairs with the 6 year old (who has turned out to be quite the the strategist).

Check out this YouTube video for a sense of the quality of narator Marc Thompson's amazing range. We've gotten to know him very well as a family, we think, while listening to these books.

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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Teaching Kids Electronics, Computers, and Programming Fundamentals with Snap Circuits

September 13, '13 Comments [33] Posted in Daddy | Parenting | Programming
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I'm not particularly interested in my kids being programmers or computer people. I'd rather they be interested in life and totally geeked about something. If that's  computers, fine. If that's ballet, also fine.

That said, I think if they are going to be effective users (If not builders) I think they should have a basic sense of how electronics work.

I bought them a basic set of Snap Circuits, specifically Snap Circuits Jr. SC-100, which is just about US$20 on Amazon.

These are brilliant. Check this picture, as it's worth a thousand words and you'll get its genius immediately.

Snap Circuits SC-100

The 5 year old loves the motor and fan, as well as the speaker and noise makers. The boys have made doorbells, a light-controlled fan, lit-up LEDs and made an AM radio. Here's an Instagram Video of the 5 year old explaining his creation:

The pieces snap onto the grid with little buttons. The pieces are plastic and the wires run through them. They're not extremely resilient, in that they can break, particularly the capacitors, but it's actually nice to be able to see the resistors and other parts exposed through the plastic. It strikes a reasonable balance between being friendly to little hands, being sturdy, and actually working reliably as electronic components.

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The 5 year old is no prodigy, to be clear, but he's already getting a general sense of electrical movement. He'll say that the resistors "slow down the electricity" and that the capacitors "store it up." He knows positive and negative, and how to use a multimeter to measure voltage. (I recommend a $10 multimeter as well for debugging your projects.) He's starting to look at doorbells and remote controls differently now, which means these little projects have already achieved my goal in just a few weeks. I anticipate they'll play with them for some months, forget about them, and then rediscover Snap Circuits every few years. These toys are great for a 5 or 6 year old, but even a 12 to 14 year old could totally appreciate them. I'm even running through some of the experiments and using the millimeter to remind myself of long-forgotten concepts.

We quickly outgrew the 30 parts in the Snap Circuits Jr. Even though it has 100 projects, I recommend you get the Snap Circuits SC-300 that has 60 parts and 300 projects, or do what we did and just get the Snap Circuits Extreme SC-750 that has 80+ parts and 750 projects. I like this one because it includes a computer interface (via your microphone jack, so any old computer will work!) as well as a Solar Panel.

The Snap Circuits SC-750 is a bargain at prices like US$75 if you can find it, especially considering how many tablets, Kindles and iPads some kids have.

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The next Snap Circuits kids we're considering are either Snap Circuits "Light" that includes LEDs and Fiber Optics, although the 5 year old is pressuring me for the Snap Circuits Robot Rover. It'll likely be the Rover for the holidays around here.

I have no relationship with Snap Circuits, I bought these kits on my own and am reviewing them because they are awesome. If I could invest in Elenco Electronics, I would. The links here are Amazon affiliate links. If you use them, I can buy more Snap Circuits! ;)


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Teach your kids to be fans

February 15, '13 Comments [15] Posted in Musings | Parenting
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I love how social media shatters the barriers to entry for fans. I can tweet my favorite actors and authors, like my favorite comic artists or writers and connect with them in a way that has not just immediacy but a social connectedness that's so satisfying.

But there's also something to be said for a letter in the mail. Being a fan can be reading and enjoying but it can also be appreciating and reaching out. I'm trying to teach a sense of appreciation to my sons and encouraging them to reach out.

They love these books in the Joey Fly Private Eye series. They are super cute and great fun for the kids.

After reading them (many times) my boys decided that they needed to write a fan letter to the writer, Aaron Reynolds, and the artist, Neil Numberman.

It was more than a fan letter, though, it was a reminder there are Makers out there. There are real humans who think up and create the things they love. Perhaps it's also a reminder that they can be Makers as well if they choose.

Here's what they wrote (the 5 year old, so bear with him):

Are you making more Joey Flies? We think you should

The kids also mentioned that they liked tennis and that my oldest had recently lost a tooth.

And here's what showed up in the mail from Neil Numberman.

My sons as bugs, by Neil Numberman

Note the missing tooth on the bug on the right.

There are no words for the awesomeness of this. This is how you get life long fans, my friends.

Thank you, Neil. You should use your twitter more. ;)

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.