Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Off-Topic: Beginning Electronics and Robot Building

Last week, I had the opportunity to host a camp for 21 kids, ages 8 to 12. The camp was called Beginning Electronics and Robot Building... or BERB. To say it was a success is an understatement. It was a great group of kids who all wanted to be there to learn some new skills and have a few new experiences.

I worked for almost six months on the camp's itinerary and, of course, immediately tossed about 25% of it out the window once camp began to roll on Monday morning. Honestly, I had just too much planned, and even with two assistants, we had our hands full making sure every camper was on equal footing. (Next summer, I'm cutting the camp down to a maximum of 16 campers.) So, what did we do and learn?

My goal with the camp wasn't to send home 21 new electronics experts and robot gurus... all I wanted to do was plant a seed. I wanted the campers to just get a glimpse of what a more in-depth knowledge of electronics and robots could provide, and I think I succeeded. Throughout the week-long camp, I constantly introduced the kids to small gizmos and gadgets, let them examine them, and tried to explain how they worked (staying within their working knowledge of batteries, voltage, etc.) They loved the Kaleidoscope Goggles, and some small LED kits (such as a POV - Persistence of Vision -- kit) and my Arcade Control... but what REALLY won them over was my 3D Printer... more on that in a moment.
Launching rockets with a 9V and wire.

So, what did we do during the week? We built rockets. Yeah, rockets. Why? Because to launch them, we had to create a closed circuit with a 9V battery. My goal was originally to have them solder up a small hand-made launcher on perf board, but that went out the window when we were pushed for time... goggles on, fifty feet of wire, and a 9V battery and he had 21 successful launches. Not 21 successful landings -- I gave the kids the opportunity to glue on the rocket tip so they'd get a nice big bang... about half chose the destructive route. (It was also about 95 degrees on the baseball field where we launched... HOT day!)

Campers also each got a soldering iron and some solder and anti-solder wick, and we practiced soldering solid core wire to perf board. Out of 21 kids, only two got burned (on their fingers). Not bad! And the two that got burned weren't all that upset and understood their mistake. The campers also got to solder up their Blinky Pins from the MakerShed. That said, I think I'm going to reduce the amount of time we spend on soldering in future camps and increase the hands-on activities that are less risky.

The robot each camper built (and took home) was an Arduino-based robot that consisted of two motors, a battery pack, and a bunch of jumper wire inserted into a breadboard. They really got some experience using a breadboard, and enjoyed building their own robots. Again, don't think they're going home as Arduino experts, but they got just enough hands-on combined with my explanations of components and such that those who really want to dig deeper will feel confident to do so.

Twenty-one robots... all working!
I've been asked to teach the camp again in four weeks. Perfect. I'm going to continue to refine the camp and iron out the wrinkles that remain. My hope is that next summer I'll be able to teach two or more of the same camp and have things go even smoother. (I've also been asked by a few other area schools to consider bringing the camp to their door, and I'm seriously considering doing so... I could fill my entire summer with 8 weeks of camp. Well, maybe 6 or 7... it's tiring!)

I had 21 smiling kids leaving the classroom on Friday afternoon -- I also invited their parents to come for the last day to watch us tinker with our robots. When camp ended, I saw 21+ parents also leaving the room with a smile... when the kids are happy, the parents are, too.

As for that 3D printer -- that was a HUGE hit on Friday. When the kids arrived Friday morning (camp ran 8am to 1pm) I had the Printrbot Simple Metal already half way through a print job. I figured we'd spend about 30 minutes watching it and answering questions, but it actually pushed to almost an hour and a half! Those kids had some great questions! And then when the parents arrived, they were quite taken with it as well. (I created a website for the camp for parents to view photos and links to books, websites, videos, etc, and the 3DP was one of the most requested links to add to the page -- sorry, the website is private and the school will not let me share photos of the kids or access to the private site.)

If you're feeling confident in your electronics skills after working through Make: Electronics, consider whether you might be able to offer a summer camp to teach kids the same experiments... the book could serve as a guide if you're not comfortable creating a course on your own. Kids are so open to this kind of training, and you'd be surprised at how open schools are as well.

Okay, back to Experiment 4...

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