When I was a kid I was endlessly fascinated by tools and making, fixing, or changing things. My Dad let me use his woodworking tools or mechanical tools to play and learn. I started messing with wires and batteries and lamps then moved on to learning about and building crystal radios then more complex electronics and… well, the rest is a lifetime spent messing with technology.
These days there’s a 21st century term for the kind of kid I was. It’s ‘Maker’ and is exemplified by things like Make Magazine and the growing culture of Hackerspaces. It’s about people taking the trouble to learn about technology with a Do It Yourself approach either to making new things or pulling things apart to see how they work or making things do stuff not intended by their original maker. It’s about learning, sharing and seeing what cool new things can come from curiosity and sharing.
I’d like my kids to have the chance to enjoy the same passion for technology that I do, but with ready access these days to a huge variety of pre-packaged technology, kids aren’t often into understanding it for themselves. So this Christmas, I bought Madeleine (11 years old) and Cadell (7 years old) some simple kits from Jaycar, firstly to get them into the swing of making something for themselves, then to teach them new skills like soldering and workshop safety.
Cadell started with a solar powered grasshopper kit. This is a simple assembly job with a tiny solar panel and a pager motor with a cam on its shaft to make it vibrate. Putting it together took moments and it satisfactorily danced about in sunlight, but stopped when shaded. The initial fun gave way to taking it apart again to glue a propellor to the motor and to strap it to a block of foam with rubber bands to make a boat and then… well, he went nuts imagining new uses for a solar powered motor.
Madeleine started with a solar powered bullet train. This involved some tricky mechanical work with tiny gears and wheels along with cutting fine plastic parts from a molded sprue. She was delighted when the train came together and actually worked. Here is 20 seconds of her following her solar bullet train and trying to shoot video of it.
We followed up the mechanical stuff with a sit down lesson in soldering. As a side note, I did the NASA High Reliability Soldering course (aimed at aeronautics) when I was a student at RMIT in the 80s. Then in the 90s I spent a lot of time at Panasonic working on Surface Mount Rework techniques and I taught advanced soldering to techs up and down the east coast of Australia. I haven’t worked full time in electronics for about 7 years now but I still own at least 8 soldering irons and associated hardware. So I know a bit about soldering, though I am certain there’s a lot I don’t know.
Anyway, teaching kids to solder is fun. They love it and I love it. I started with twisting bits of wire together and getting them to get the feel of making a heat bridge with a clean and tinned iron, then introducing solder to the joint. Cadell immediately intuited the way to make a perfect joint, while Madeleine worried a bit too much to get it right first time. Within half an hour they were both competent.
Today we moved on to soldering on a Printed Circuit Board. Cadell woke me up asking to start on his crystal radio. So we had breakfast then got on to that and he couldn’t be held back. To be fair, the kit crystal radio from Jaycar is complete and simple and inexpensive, but I suspect that unless you live next door to a massive AM radio transmitter, it’s useless. The Chinglish instructions are fun, but worthless. Luckily, Cadell enjoyed the building of it so much that he didn’t care at all when we heard nothing from the finished product.
Next Maddy was super keen to build her Clifford the Electronic Cricket. This tiny PCB would require concentration, a steady hand and attention to detail. Initially nervous, Maddy supplied all of those and more. Her soldering was patient, careful and effective. I did hold the PCB for her and offer advice, but she did the work. We worked through identifying components, deciding what to solder first, being careful about solder bridges, keeping it neat and reading instructions. To Madeleine’s delight, the noisy Cricket worked first time.
I’m delighted with the results of teaching my kids a bit about electronics and soldering and making stuff that works. Now Cadell and I are starting on making a Really Big Antenna. Oh dear.