These dog days of August can feel especially hot, and long — and the last thing anybody wants is a house full of bored kids. Young people interested in technology will likely get a kick out of working with real computer hardware and software. Fortunately, there is an array of development kits and tools out there that will help them jump into electronics at a basic and intermediate level. Here are two of my favorites.
For young experimenters and adults looking for some entry-level tools, I would recommend anything from Parallax. The company supports its kits with solid documentation written by people who understand how to explain things clearly in a step-by-step fashion. Anyone who can actually accomplish that automatically gets high marks in my book!
The company's BASIC Stamp kits are most interesting, because they use the BASIC programming language and things such as controlling I/O pins require only a single, simple instruction such as OUT7, or INPUT6. No complicated set up of the I/O ports needed for the BASIC Stamp computers.
Experimenters, students and hobbyists can start with one of four types of BASIC Stamp Programming Kits. The
Stamp Discovery Kit
($160), for example, comes with a software manual and the “What's a Microcontroller?” book, as well as a photo sensor, servo motor, piezoelectric speaker, a 7-segment display and other components.
The BASIC Stamp Editor works with the Windows operating system. Parallax provides links to Macintosh and Linux BASIC Stamp Editors offered by other companies, but it does not support this software. (I recommend kits with a USB connection to a host computer. Some kits offer either a USB port or a serial port. Serial ports are not common on newer desktop or laptop computers). As a fun project for adults and kids to work on together, Parallax also offers a wide variety of small robot kits that use the BASIC Stamp computer modules and the same BASIC language. Experimenters also can purchase sensors, liquid-crystal displays, motor controllers, and many other compatible devices and components directly from the company.
If you can't decide what kit to buy, call the people at Parallax and they'll help you decide. The company has distributors worldwide. The two books in the BASIC Stamp kit provide a variety of experiments that young people can understand and get to operate without difficulty. If you worry that your young Edison or Tesla will run out of things to do, fear not. Parallax has an extensive list of books that discuss sensors, controls, robots, and include hands-on programming and electronic experiments and exercises. Also, Parallax has books devoted to topics of interest to adults who need information about a specific area, such as industrial control. For young experimenters who have a bit of experience with electronics — and have an adult willing to assist and serve as a mentor — take a look at Arduino. You can find more much information, including lists of worldwide distributors of hardware, information about programming with Arduino, sample code and so on, at http://arduino.cc/.
The Arduino software — which looks much like C — appears easy to learn and use. The integrated development environment (IDE) runs under Windows, Mac OS X or Linux and anyone can download the software for free. I have no hands-on experience with Arduino, but have heard good reports about the hardware and software.
Hardware comes from many sources around the world. The Arduino Duemilanove board, for example, uses an Atmel ATmega168 microcontroller and the board offers 14 digital I/O pins, six analog inputs and a USB connection. A USB cable links the board to a host PC a youngster would use to write programs, or what the Arduino community calls “sketches.” Users can set as many as six of the digital I/O pins act as pulse-width modulators. The female signal “headers” on this board make it easy to use small jumper wires to connect signals with a solderless breadboard. (This board includes an in-circuit serial programming, or ICSP, connector).
You can find other hardware listed on the Arduino website. Amazon also offers several basic-electronics books and programming books that use the an Arduino board and the language. Amazon also sells an
Duemilanove Starter Kit
The Arduino approach might not appeal to all young experimenters because they (or you) would have to locate additional components, such as relays, small motors and displays for experiments. And as far as I know, no official Arduino guidebook or reference exists, so to a great extent you're on your own, although blogs and discussion websites can help — which can be a great way to connect with other, like-minded users.
Good luck! If you embark on using either any of these kits (with or without kids) or have suggestions on other good tools, drop me a line at email@example.com.