Scott Hanselman

The 2015 Christmas List of Best STEM Toys for your little nerds and nerdettes

December 6, '15 Comments [27] Posted in Musings
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My 8 year old (recently 7, they grow so fast) asked recently, "are we nerds yet?" Being a nerd doesn't have the negative stigma it once did. A nerd is a fan, and everyone should be enthusiastic about something. You might be a gardening nerd or a woodworking nerd. In this house, we are Maker Nerds. We've been doing some 3D Printing lately, and are trying to expand into all kinds of makings.

NOTE: We're gearing up for another year of March Is For Makers coming soon in March of 2016. Now is a great time for you to catch up on March 2015's content!

Here's a Christmas List of things that I've either personally purchased, tried for a time, or borrowed from a friend. These are great toys and products for kids of all genders and people of all ages.

Snap Circuits

Snap Circuits

I love Snap Circuits and have talked about them before on my blog. 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.

Dremel 3D Printer

We still use our Dremel 3D Printer at least two or three times a week. We're printing a quadcopter, making Minecraft Chess sets, and creating gifts for the family.

Minecraft 3D Printed Chess Set

Here's some of my 3D Printing posts so far:

It's been extremely reliable. Some folks complain that the Dremel system and software is proprietary, but it's very easy to use. Additionally, if you really don't like their custom software, companies like Simplify3D have Dremel support built right in. You can also use third party filament like Proto-pasta with great success. We even extended the Dremel with a custom 3D printed spool adapter for Proto-pasta and upgraded nozzle and build plate. It's been fantastically reliable and I recommend the Dremel highly.

littleBits Electronics Gizmos and Gadgets

LittleBits are a more expensive than Snap Circuits, but they operate at a higher level of abstraction. While Snap Circuits will teach you about resistors and current and voltage, litlteBits is more oriented towards System Thinking. The littleBits Electronics Gizmos & Gadgets kit is massive and has kept my kids entertained for the last few weeks. It includes motors, wheels, lights, switches, servos, buzzers even a remote control. In fact, the remote control lets you remote any signal and make any gadget you come up with a wireless one.

littleBits

LittleBits also has a LEGO compatibility system which, while a little persnickety, has allowed the kids to create remote controlled LEGO cars in minutes. They are very expandable and everything is modular. You can build more with additional kits, or you can get just one sensor or that one motor that you need.

The HP Stream 11.6 Laptop

First, let's be serious. The HP Stream is a $199 laptop with an 11.6" screen. Surprisingly, you can get a 13.3" screen for just $210. But on the real, it's not for office workers. It's not even for you. It's for the kids in your life. It's a good, solid, beginner laptop for kids. 2 gigs of ram, and a very modest 1.6 Ghz processor with just a 1366x768 screen, it runs Windows 10 pretty well, in fact and even includes Office 365 Personal for a year (that's Word, Excel, etc).

HP Stream 11.6" Laptop

I've even heard a parent call the HP Stream the "Minecraft Laptop." My sons took a week-long summer school Minecraft class with a room filled with these little laptops and they did just fine. It has just a 32gig SSD for a hard drive, but for <$20 you can add and drop in a 64gig SD Card and tell Windows 10 to put downloaded apps onto the SD Card directly.

This is a great machine for <$200 that you can feel comfortable giving to an 8 year old or tween and teach them how to code.

Raspberry Pi (any kind!)

Little boys on the Raspberry Pi

Every STEM house should have a Raspberry Pi or six! We've got 4? Or 5? They end up living inside robots, or taped to the garage door, or running SCUMMVM Game Emulators, or powering DIY GameBoys.

I recommend a complete Raspberry Pi Kit when you're just getting started as it guarantees you'll be up and running in minutes. They include the SD Card (acts as a hard drive), a power supply, a case, etc. All you need to provide is a USB Keyboard and Mouse. I ended up getting a cheap Mini USB wired keyboard and cheap USB wired mouse for simplicity.

Raspberry Pis will give you back as much as you can put into them. While you can treat it as a very low-powered browser or basic machine, you should really explore the breadth of projects you can make with a Raspberry Pi. Sure, the kids can learn Scratch or Python, but they can also build Raspberry Pi Robots or run a version of Windows 10 and play with C#. They can add their own electronics, lights, sounds, make radios, and more.

If you want to save money, get just a Raspberry Pi alone for <$40 and use a micro-USB Cell Phone Power Supply, and whatever electronics you have around the house. Once I took a local kid to Goodwill (a thrift store) and we found the power supply, mouse, keyboard, AND LCD Monitor all in the electronics junk pile of the store for $25 total.

OWI Robotic Arm Edge

The OWI Robotic Arm Edge 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."

OWI Robotic Arm Edge

What educational toys do YOU recommend this holiday season?

FYI: These Amazon links are referral links. When you use them I get a tiny percentage. It adds up to taco money for me and the kids! I appreciate you - and you appreciate me-  when you use these links to buy stuff.


Sponsor: Big thanks to Infragistics for sponsoring the feed this week. Responsive web design on any browser, any platform and any device with Infragistics jQuery/HTML5 Controls.  Get super-charged performance with the world’s fastest HTML5 Grid - Download for free now!

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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Sunday, 06 December 2015 11:01:25 UTC
It is nice that you are educating your kids in this interesting way. Things to learn for every parents.
Sunday, 06 December 2015 13:39:12 UTC
Perfect timing, thanks. When I was growing up, my dad got us a Spectrum ZX 80. I think I was 6 or 7 and that's what got me hooked on programming. BASIC was a great starter language for a kid my age. What programming language did your kids start on? Any opinion on what might be the best choice in today's context?
Prasanna
Sunday, 06 December 2015 14:25:34 UTC
Any thoughts on this 3D Printer?

http://store.printm3d.com/

It's made by some local (to me) guys from the University of Maryland. Seems very user friendly.
Sunday, 06 December 2015 14:51:19 UTC
Hey Scott,

I picked up a blue HP Stream 13" this summer when they were on Groupon. I've been hesitant to give my 8yo full access to it because I need to apply parental controls on it. I want to lock down what apps/web sites my 8 and 5 year olds can go to on it. Have any tips or reference articles that can get me started?

You mention learning to code. Again - have an tips for an 8yo to get her coding to start with? We've tried code.org with mixed success of keeping her interest.

-Jason
Sunday, 06 December 2015 16:27:02 UTC
Thanks Scott, Snap Circuits are an awesome idea, just ordered the "500" for £5 more than the "350" on Amazon for my 8yo this Xmas.
Sunday, 06 December 2015 18:30:14 UTC
For the readers in Germany: The Snap Circuit seems to be licensed by Komsos and rebranded as "Easy Elektro Start": https://www.amazon.de/KOSMOS-620516-Easy-Elektro-Start/dp/B006YTU4NY

And I am a little jealous that these toys did not exists >20 years ago :)
Lars
Monday, 07 December 2015 00:36:42 UTC
Scott, how much time do your kids spend using a computer/tablet etc. each week? Do you guys set any limits?
Marc
Monday, 07 December 2015 01:55:13 UTC
We LOVE Makeblock http://www.makeblock.cc/

My daughters program the mBot with Scratch and got a lot of fun !!

http://www.makeblock.cc/mbot/
Monday, 07 December 2015 06:23:01 UTC
Marc - Yes, for games, 30 min three days a week. For educational stuff, usually less than 90 min a day.
Scott Hanselman
Monday, 07 December 2015 08:41:42 UTC
Great article, i plan to get the Pi soon. Thanks for the recommendation.
Hsu Shen On
Monday, 07 December 2015 10:26:08 UTC
My son is only 3 but he loves building stuff. So the last few weeks we've been rebuilding all my old lego kits (the bigger ones, pirateship, castles etc.). Your list is fantastic stuff to offer my son when he's a bit older. Thanks for the writeup!
Monday, 07 December 2015 13:11:11 UTC
Hi,

Can anybody suggest an alternative to the OWI arm that uses servos? I'm planning on using a Pi Zero loaded with NodeJS and something like node-usb to control it.

I was looking at the reviews for the USB version of the arm (http://www.amazon.co.uk/ROBOTIC-ARM-KIT-INTERFACE-CONSTRUCT/dp/B005ERFUXG/), but it looks like it uses cheap motors, which might make repeat-ability and precision an issue when it comes to programming it.

I'm aware that it's cheap, but I'd hate to stifle the learning process with an arm that can't repeat instructions reliably :(
Andrew
Monday, 07 December 2015 15:39:14 UTC
Thanks for this list Scott. I have bought Snap Circuits for my kids for Christmas (ssshh! Don't tell them, it's a surprise) so I'm pleased to see that you've had a positive experience with it. I'm also slightly dismayed to find that I may have bought the wrong kit (Snap Circuits Jr)... but then again, they're quite young (5, 3 and 1) so it should keep them busy for a little while.

Snap Circuits seem to be a lot more expensive in the UK, so I think any upgrades might need to wait for a visit from their US-based relatives :-)
Monday, 07 December 2015 16:34:35 UTC
Not a toy or new - but my daughter has been using recycled desktop PCs since she was 3 (now 8) loaded with Edubuntu. The GCompris suite comes loaded with educational games for younger kids. It even has some higher education aps as well.

As for locking down - Jason - the PC is assigned a static IP at the router an then only allowed to access specific websites. Sounds tedious, but I only want her to access a handful of websites. I can also restrict time of day she can access websites so usage is limited. Still not sure what I'm going to do when she is older.
Steve
Monday, 07 December 2015 18:37:54 UTC
+1 on the Snap Circuits. I bought a kit off Woot a couple years ago when my grandson was 5. He still pulls it out every time he visits (1-2 times a month), first because he had to make the propeller fly, and now he builds noise makers (sirens, music, whatever), triggered by photoelectric sensor, and hides it around the house to annoy my wife.

You might want to also mention the Raspberry Pi Zero for only $5 now!
Mark Harr
Monday, 07 December 2015 19:26:20 UTC
Hopefully the 2016 list will be able to list the (shipping in early 2016) Jewelbots that my daughters are eagerly looking forward to.
Monday, 07 December 2015 21:21:54 UTC
I bought Snap Circuits for my niece and my brother-in-law ended up playing with it more than her! ;-)
Tom Winter
Monday, 07 December 2015 21:47:41 UTC
Our 11 year old (girl) got a second hand Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 set two days ago (Sinterklaas is faster than Santa) and has built a car and a walking Alpha Rex humanoid Robot.

I founds some 64-bit drivers online. Allready 'bricked' the brick (it's called the "click syndrome") while doing an (unnecessary) firmware-patch... After almost beating myself up for this stupid action, got my head back together and... found a solution to CPR the CPU again... (ty internet).

It's amazing what already has been built with NXT & EV3 on YouTube. I'm surprised how much fun it is to built it's 2009 toy bots and tinker with it's software. >50% discount >100% fun!
Tune
Wednesday, 09 December 2015 13:57:40 UTC
I found a snap circuit kit in a yard sale that looked brand new for $1.00. Of course I had to buy it and the kids love it.
Eric
Thursday, 10 December 2015 21:37:05 UTC
For the 7 to 8-year old, do you recommend snap circuits over the X-in-one electronics labs? Those are the ones with the spring clips. The snap circuits seem more tactile, I suspect they are less powerful. I have an old one I was going to give to my son but now I'm questioning that decision.
Monday, 14 December 2015 12:02:40 UTC
I found out by accident that Snap Circuits are available in some european countries under some different names.

In czech republic you find them by looking for Boffin 100. In Germany its sold from Kosmos.

Its ok to buy in a different language, because manuals are available online at http://www.elenco.com/support/manuals
Mathias
Thursday, 17 December 2015 13:54:39 UTC
Thanks, Scott. We've been wondering what to get my 9-year old nephew, and I think a Snap Circuits set might be just the thing.
Adam
Friday, 18 December 2015 10:53:10 UTC
This list is really awesome and as Christmas is approaching near it would make it even more awesome indeed..Thanks a lot!
Friday, 18 December 2015 13:53:05 UTC
Snap Circuits are brilliant! Got them for my son(7) and daughter(9) just out of curiosity and they've been a big hit - kept their interest and they've started working through the projects on their own.
Caroline
Saturday, 02 January 2016 18:18:33 UTC
Thank you Scott. It is very useful. Happy new year
Wednesday, 06 January 2016 08:15:50 UTC
Hi Scott,

Thanks for the tip about Snap Circuits Jr. I got it for my 7.5-year-old, and he loves it! So does his grandfather, so the 2 of them can have loads of fun with it together! :)
Saturday, 09 January 2016 12:22:25 UTC
Thanks Scott, really awesome.3d printing is the future
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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.