If you ever want to pique a kid’s interest in technology, it is best to bring out something simple, yet cool. There was a time that showing a kid how a crystal radio could pull in a radio station from all the way across town fit the bill. Now, that’s a yawner as the kid probably carries a high-tech cell phone with a formidable radio already. Your latest FPGA project is probably too complicated to grasp, and your Arduino capacitance meter is–no offense–too boring to meet the cool factor criterion.
There’s an old school project usually called an “electromagnetic train” that works well (Ohio State has a good write up about it as a PDF file). You coil some bare copper wire around a tubular form to make a tunnel. Then a AAA battery with some magnets make the train. When you put the train in the tunnel, the magnetic forces propel the train through the tunnel. Well, either that or it shoots it out. If that happens, turn the train around and try again. There’s a few of these in Internet videos and you can see one of them (from [BeardedScienceGuy]) below.
In the last Hacking and Kids post, I talked about an activity you can do with kids when you don’t have a lot of time or resources. The key idea was to have fun and learn a little bit about open and closed loop control. One of the things I usually briefly mention when I do that is the idea of a design trade: Why, for example, a robot might use wheels instead of legs, or treads instead of wheels.
Engineers and makers perform trades like this all the time. Suppose you are building a data logging system. You want precise samples, large storage capacity, and many channels. But you also want a low cost and low power drain. You might also want high reliability. All of these requirements will lead to different trades. A hard drive would provide a lot of space, but is more expensive, less reliable, larger, and more power hungry than, say, an SD card. So there isn’t a right choice. It depends on which of the factors are most important for this particular design. A data logger in a well-powered rack might be well served to have a terrabyte hard drive, while a battery powered logger in a matchbox that will be up on the side of a mountain might be better off with an SD card.
We can all relate to that example, but it is pretty boring to a kid. You probably can’t get them to design a data logger, anyway. But if I have about an hour and a little prep time, I have a different way to get the same point across. It is a modified version of the classic “egg drop”, but it is simple enough to do in an hour with very little preparation time.
“To the Tortuga!” my husband and I heard the announcement from the backyard. Our two boys, Ben (7) and Miles (3), had become pleasantly obsessed with the coolest brothers in nature – the Kratt Brothers. From the moment that these two energetic animal-loving brothers were discovered by our kids, they’ve been huge fans. Our house has been transported to the Sonora Desert where we saved a Gila Monster, then to the Australian Outback to learn about the Thorny Devil. We even went to swing with the Spider Monkeys in South America and then back to the good ‘ole U.S. of A to harness the speed of the Roadrunner – since we are, after all, a family of runners!
Our boys have been the Grand Brothers for months and there are no signs of it letting up. At the end of summer, I decided to reward the kids with a Creaturepod, a plastic toy meant to look like the fictional walkie talkie of the same name used on PBS Kids’ Wild Kratts program. They loved it, but soon found that it didn’t do anything on its own. They both have wild imaginations and like to bring to life most of their play, but the toy just wasn’t doing it for them. Being that Chris and Martin Kratt are brothers in real life, and Ben and Miles Grand are brothers in real life, Ben thought it would only be right to have “real life” Creaturepods. Real walkie talkies that he could use to communicate with his friends and have Wild Kratts adventures. This natural interest provided an opportunity to make learning, designing, and building a source of fun for the boys. It is an amazing way to teach that you can change the world around you by having an idea, making a plan, and gathering everyone with the skills needed to complete the project.
Last spring [Mike] built a foam rocket launchpad which was a hit with the kids in his neighborhood. But the launch system was merely a couple of buttons so the early enthusiasm quickly wore off. He went back to the drawing board to make improvements and really hit the jackpot!
The original launch system had one button for building up air pressure with a second big red button of doom for launching the rocket. The problem was a complete lack of user feedback; all the kids could do is guess how long they needed to hold the button to achieve the highest launch. This revision adds flashing LEDs to hold the attention of the wee ones but to also function as a gauge for the new pressure control system. The visually fascinating control board also includes a removable key to prevent accidental launches.
The particulars of this are as you’d expect: it’s a bunch of plumbing to manage the air pressure, an Arduino to control it all, and additional electronics in between to make them work together.
We’re especially impressed by the leap in features and quality from the first version to this one. It’s a testament to the power of quick proofs-of-concept before committing to a more involved build. Great work [Mike]!
[ThatHpiGuy] had a problem. He wasn’t impressed with the performance from his kids’ electric-powered Mini. The 6 volt system was anemic at best, and was just begging for an upgrade. Pulling off the seat and checking the undercarriage, [ThatHpiGuy] realized the motor and gearbox were a perfect fit for the Turnigy 2300 Kv motor from his R/C short course truck. A couple of screws later, and he had the fastest ride-on toy on the block. Since this was a quick hack, [ThatHpiGuy] kept the truck’s R/C receiver, electronic speed control, and 2 cell LiPo power setup intact. The result is a cooperative system where he controls the throttle via R/C, and his kids control the steering.
That steering is still a bit of an issue though. Like many kid toys, the Mini only has one drive wheel, in this case the right rear. If [ThatHpiGuy] pours on the power a bit too quickly, the single wheel either spins or forces the car into a hard left turn. Aside from that, it looks like both [ThatHpiGuy] and his children are having a ball with this hack. The car will even pop a wheelie from a standing start! You’ve got to see it after the break.
Back when he was about seven years old, [Ytai] learned to program on an Atari 800XL. Now he has a seven-year-old of his own and wants to spark his interest in programming, so he created these programmable LEGO bricks with tiny embedded microcontrollers. This is probably one of the few times that “bricking” a microcontroller is a good thing!
The core of the project is the Espruino Pico microcontroller which has the interesting feature of running a Java stack in a very tiny package. The Blocky IDE is very simple as well, and doesn’t bog users down in syntax (which can be discouraging to new programmers, especially when they’re not even a decade old). The bricks that [Ytai] made include a servo motor with bricks on the body and the arm, some LEDs integrated into Technic bricks, and a few pushbutton bricks.
We always like seeing projects that are geared at getting kids interested in creating, programming, and hacking, and this certainly does that! [Ytai] has plans for a few more LEGO-based projects to help keep his kid interested in programming as well, and we look forward to seeing those! If you’re looking for other ways to spark the curiosity of the youths, be sure to check out the Microbot, or if you know some teens that need some direction, perhaps these battlebots are more your style.
Two tables down from us at SXSW Create the Raspberry Pi foundation had a steady stream of kids playing Minecraft on Raspberry Pi, and picking up paint brushes. The painting activity was driven by a board they spun for the event that used conductive paint to control the Raspberry Pi 2.
The board uses the HAT form factor which it a fancy name for a shield (also a clever one as it stands for “Hardware Attached on Top”). You can see the back side of the board in this image. It utilizes an extremely low-profile surface mount pin socket.
The front side exposes several circular pads of copper which build up a “connect-the-dots” game that is played by painting conductive ink on the surface. This results in an airplane being pained on the board, as well as displayed on the computer. There is a set of pads that allow the user to select what color is painted on the monitor.
We like this as a different approach to education. Kids are more than used to tapping on a touchscreen, clicking a mouse, or pounding a keyboard. But conductive ink provides several learning opportunities; the paint simply connects the inner circle with the outer circle; one of these circles is the same on every single dot (ground); anything that connects these two parts of the dot together will result in input for the computer. Great stuff!