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Education 2.0 Journal Authors: Don MacVittie, janifar soloman, janifar soloman, Mark van Rijmenam, Maureen O'Gara

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Encouraging Electronics for Youth By @DMacvittie | @CloudExpo #Cloud

EEME Hands-on review - teaching a seven year old electronics with the EEME Genius Light kit.

Teaching young children about electronics is difficult. If you are a parent that isn't knowledgeable about electronic circuits, you feel like you have to study before teaching, and if you are a parent that is knowledgeable about circuits, you have to try and balance all that you know against holding the child's interest. This balance is all too often broken by a parent wanting to impart the very important information like how to read the bands on a resistor, while the child wants to just do it.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that it is rare for me to plug a company's product. I tend to plug my employers, simply because I won't work at a company whose tech I don't personally believe in. Be it dev tools or network gear, I have to believe in both the value and the product before I join, so naturally I blog about them. The same is true of products that I have no relationship with other than as a user. If I think the need is compelling, I'm happy to talk about it. Usually I stick to products that have an enterprise application, but occasionally I'll delve into personal tech.

This is one of those blogs. So if you only care about enterprise tech, probably best to skip this one.

My youngest is seven. He is a geek in every way, which is unsurprising, considering his mother, father, and oldest brother are too. Explaining to him why Redstone in MineCraft was often referred to as a "Redstone circuit" piqued his interest in electronics.

I tried teaching all three of our (now adult) older children about electronics. I've taught at the university level and mentored at the grade school level, but odd thing about me (no surprise considering one of our domains is nandgate.com), I found it difficult to introduce my children to electronics without offering so much detail it bored them senseless.

For some reason, a child in the 7-12 year old range doesn't care about how to read the bands on a resistor, or how to spec the perfect part. They want to DO it.

Thus, when I heard about a little company called EEME, which specialized in educational electronics kits, I checked them out. I liked what I saw, considering that the kits come pre-assembled, and the instructions are videos on-line showing the child exactly what to do.

Lori and I talked about it, and decided to give it a shot. I asked Little Man (we don't publish his actual name online - we'll let him embarrass himself when he's older) if he was interested in their "Genius Light", and showed him what it was and that he would make it. He immediately said yes. After I ordered, and it told me June first ship date (we got the subscription, so they ship on the first of the month), with 5-7 business days to delivery, he impatiently watched the mail starting on the first. This surprised me a bit, he's got a lot of other hobbies, all more in tune with the 21st century child than stringing circuits.

It arrived on the 6th, and we set to building over the weekend.

The boy was super-excited to get started, and I was hoping that EEME had arranged things such that he would stay excited throughout. For those who like the summary first, they did. Here are the details.

Screenshot of EEME video

The subscription is meant to start with the simple light that adjusts output based on ambient light, and then progress into increasingly complex circuits. This means I expected pretty much what we got - a couple of resistors, breadboard, LED, and a photoresistor. It came with a nice kit (breadboard/battery) frame to hold it together for easier handling. If you buy the single kit, it is more expensive but comes with a case to protect the circuitry, while the subscription does not have the case included.

We set out the parts, and I briefly explained them to him. It's kind of a natural thing for me to start explaining, but I caught myself and kept it at 50,000 feet - part of what I paid for was the videos to teach the child, and I wanted to see how it went, figuring I could fill in anything I felt they missed.

So we launched the first video, and I pulled out the parts as they were being explained. The boy was caught between listening closely and playing with the parts. I used the video player pause button liberally in that time frame (there's also a built-in "go back five seconds" button that we'll get to in a bit).

Immediately after talking through the parts, the video walks viewers through building a simple circuit - since the LED needs a resistor even with two AA batteries, it's not the simplest circuit possible, but it is the simplest with the components in the kit. How a circuit works is covered both as-you-go and in review, but the resistor's function is largely (and well) glossed over at this early stage. The point is, within 15 minutes of sitting down, he had a clue how the breadboard was laid out, what each component was for, and had built a working light. Further circuit lessons involve pulling connections and showing that it breaks the circuit.

I'll take a moment and mention the video quality. When you're taking still photos of very small things, focus and detail can be a problem, let alone when you're taking video of someone manipulating those small things and lifting the kit up and down to illuminate bits. I don't know if they shot these over and over or if they figured out a good system and have it all set, but focus is only lost a couple of times over the course of all of the videos for this project kit, and quickly returns. You can clearly see what is being done. Considering that when I take pictures of 15mm miniatures I sometimes have to reposition or change settings and reshoot a dozen times, I'm impressed.

With Mom watching

The voiceover is solid, not monotone droning as happens in technical training videos sometimes. For those who've watched the show, it isn't the science teacher in "The Wonder Years", the voice is clear and steady, with enough inflection not to put the child to sleep.

Overall, the videos come off well. Some will find nits with them, no doubt, but the key to this equation should be "does it hold a child's interest", and the answer, based on my sampling of one seven year old is "yes". That alone makes them good enough, unless a larger sampling has a different result.

And you can't beat that the videos have the holes things are plugged into overlaid in the actual plugging, so pausing the video helps the child get it right the first time.

After the child is excited by having created their very first circuit, the circuit is dismantled, and building the Genius Light starts.

Here is where it gets interesting. Because this is the first project, he and I were doing it together. At this point he wanted to take over and do it. I was still there most of the time, but even if I stepped away, he just kept plowing through. Soon enough, he had it built, and that's when the real excitement started.

 

As I knew from personal experience, the rush of having built something is strong in this child - what we call "The Happy Dance" when you solve the problem, whatever the problem may be. The completion of the genius light was no exception. In fact, he's waiting for this weekend, so he can show his niece and cousins the cool Genuis Light he built.

We have tested his knowledge after giving him a couple of days to digest, and it turns out that his retention is solid. He is a bright child, but attention span can cause issues - he IS seven after all - the short length of the videos, and learn-as-you-go, plus review after each sub-project drove it home without boring the child.

So, while we have only received and built the first project in the subscription, I have to rate this as "excellent". It teaches a child with latent interest in a manner that engages them, comes with all the parts, and the instructional videos are nice enough that parents without an EE background can get these kits for their children, and not have to rush out to learn about it before the kit arrives.

Watching the video

One of the things that this format avoids is the "300 electronic projects!" kit syndrome. If you've ever bought one for your child, you know that they are great for a couple of projects and then gather dust on a shelf. Or pieces get mixed up and the child doesn't want to have to sort through them to find the right parts. This kit is self contained, meaning it's all there, you need the parts that come with it, and you need nothing else. There is very little set-up time, and it's fully self contained.

The price may make you hesitate, at the time of this blog, the subscription is $18.95 USD a month (for a kit a month), and the Genius Light as a stand-alone project is $49.95 USD. This might put it out of the price range of some readers, but honestly, the completeness of the kit and the instruction is worth the price, if you can afford it.

Could you build these kits yourself, by sourcing parts and putting it together beforehand? Absolutely. I have the parts for this kit down in my electronics building lab. But the instructional videos and the "it's self contained, your child can just run with it, given access to a browser". Is worth the cost, in my opinion.

You get everything you need, delivered to your door (important since the death of Radio Shack, you can pay more in shipping than the part costs if ordering individually online), ready to assemble, with access to videos that are pretty much professional level, but purposely kept to 5 minutes or less each. In between sets of videos there are review sections that help reinforce what was learned in the last series of videos. It takes a couple of hours from opening the box to completed Genius light, but the first working circuit is built in the first ten minutes, which definitely sucks the child in and makes them want more.

It would be nice if the box came in the subscription, but understandable why it does not. And if we asked Little Man, he may proclaim that he prefers it without a box - that way he can show of his circuit wizardry to... Well, to anyone who walks into the house.

And as mentioned, you could do it yourself. But you'd have to spec things out and get the parts. Not a tall order if you have a setup for building this stuff in the basement already, but for the average parent or teacher, perhaps a bit too much. EEME takes care of that for you.

Lastly is customer service. I've had several email exchanges withe EEME, first as a new customer just asking questions, then as a blogger making certain I had some facts straight. Answers were direct and polite, even outgoing. You would be hard put to find many EEs out that for whom that would be true, and the value that openness adds is a competitive edge I recommend you take advantage of.

Next month is The LED display, he's already asking when it will come. EEME succeeded astoundingly at delivering at what they intended, and encouraging a love of learning makes them a five star in my book.

More Stories By Don MacVittie

Don MacVittie is founder of Ingrained Technology, A technical advocacy and software development consultancy. He has experience in application development, architecture, infrastructure, technical writing,DevOps, and IT management. MacVittie holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Northern Michigan University, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.