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We recently came across this video:

http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2011/04/the-awesome-button.html

and both my six year old and 13 year old thought it was pretty cool. I am a computer programmer, but never did much with electronics, so I am looking for some suggestions on how to introduce electronics to myself and my kids in a fun lab/project oriented way.

Its a little challenging b/c of the age gap between my kids, but I'm ok if the younger doesn't understand everything. As long as he can participate in the lab and be involved in what we are doing, he will pick things up along the way. Likewise, I wouldn't want something so simple that my older son is bored.

A few preferences:

  • I would prefer to stay away from robotics initially, maybe we can graduate to that, but I am looking for something not quite as involved.
  • I would prefer that we can bring a programming component into the mix relatively soon, like in the example I linked to above, but that's not a requirement. That also is something we can graduate into.
  • I would prefer not to shell out a whole lot of money initially. Maybe a couple hundred dollars at most, but hopefully less.
  • I'm ok with learning stuff from a book or videos but my main goal is to give us projects to work on together. This is mostly about trying to find something to do with Dad time that is fun for us all, learning electronics is kind of a bonus. The labs or projects are my focus.

So, can you suggest books, kits, websites, or other resources that would facilitate what I have outlined above?

update

@AndrejaKo: I know basically nothing about electronics. I understand that it involves things like resistors and logic gates, etc. but as to what those things are and how they are used, I know nothing.

I have a multi-meter I bought at Lowes, but that is about it. If I have to spend the money to get some basic tools & components, thats ok. I just want to keep the cost down until I found out if this is really something they we are interested in doing together or if its going to die after a few projects.

solution

I began trying to put together an order for the electronic components for the All About Electronics experiments section as well as the first chapter of Make: Electronics. I had a couple hours into it, wasn't sure I was ordering the right components, and was somewhat discouraged when I happened across a blog that is walking through the Make: Electronics book that mentioned MakerShed's component packs for the Make: Electronics book. That sealed the deal for me! I went ahead and ordered the first component pack and the book (which was only $10 if you buy the component pack).

We are going to start out with this book. If we make it past chapter two, I will go ahead and order the second component pack. The price has to beat RadioShack and even if its more expensive than ordering the components individually, I'm way sold on the time its saving me.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Tell us how much do you know about electronics? Also while you're waiting for a good answer, take a look at this and read the experiments part. Also do you have any equipment? IF the answer is no, then expect to spend at least $200 on basics (safe multimeter, breadboards jumper wires, power source etc). The good news is that after you get your basic lab kit, you can have loads of fun for just another $100. Simple components like resistors, diodes, voltage regulators, buttons, microcontrollers and so on are very very cheap. \$\endgroup\$
    – AndrejaKo
    Apr 11, 2011 at 17:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Answered your questions above, thanks. Also, I will look at the link you sent out. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 11, 2011 at 18:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ This question might be sort of relevant electronics.stackexchange.com/questions/12543/… \$\endgroup\$
    – Dean
    Apr 11, 2011 at 18:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Randy Syring OK. Another question: Would you be more interested in building things from round up or are you more interested in just seeing results? This will help us determine direction in which we should take our recommendations. For example if you just want to see things done, you can get an Arduino and program a flashing LED quickly and get to use programming. On the other hand making a similar device from scratch would take several projects but you'll understand how each part actually works. \$\endgroup\$
    – AndrejaKo
    Apr 11, 2011 at 19:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another interesting question: electronics.stackexchange.com/q/966/1240 Mainly focus on capacitors, resistors and fuses, if you don't know what we're talking about there. \$\endgroup\$
    – AndrejaKo
    Apr 11, 2011 at 19:12

5 Answers 5

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You're probably looking for a book like these:

Which are introductory, but practical, books on electronics.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The experiments section of the All About Circuits website and the Make: Electronics book are the direction I am going to head. I learned about these originally from AndrejaKo and through a link provided by Dean, but they were both comments. Since Arturo also suggested Make: Electronics he gets the solution. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 14, 2011 at 22:47
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I would stay away from anything so complicated that you only can use it as a black box, like in the video a USB interface. Instead I would use very basic components, preferably things which generate a sound or display something, these will appeal to your youngest too.
One possible project is an electronic die. You can do this with a few HCMOS ICs, like a 7-segment LED driver. It has the advantage that you don't have to introduce transistors yet (transistors are Really Complicated Devices!!) and they see something happen.

edit (re OP's comment)
HCMOS is a family of digital ICs, it comprises basic logical functions like gates (AND, OR, NOR, inverter,...), but also more functional blocks, like counters and the 7-segment driver I mentioned. For the die I was thinking of an oscillator you can start-stop, which makes the counter loop from 1 to 6. (Note to chief engineer: that's a presetable counter, a normal counter would start counting at 0.) The 7-segment driver converts its binary input to a pattern for the 7-segments digit display.
Alternatively, you can create a die-like LED pattern and use logic ICs to determine which LEDs have to light up for which counter value. (chief engineer: you can use a Johnson counter, like the 74HC4017. Count from zero to 5.) For instance, the center LED only lights up when you roll a 1, 3 or 5. Then you OR outputs 0, 2, and 4 of the counter (remember, zero-based)
The advantage of working with logic ICs is that you don't need to explain about electrons right away, and that they can get acquainted with voltage levels first.
If you create the oscillator with a NAND gate like the 74HC132, you can explain its working with the water model: voltage = water level, capacitor = water tank, resistor = thin water tube.

For a concrete example see this googled document

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the suggestion, I agree with sticking with the basics. "electronic die...HCMOS ICs, like a 7-segment LED driver" uh...you lost me at electronic die... :o) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 11, 2011 at 18:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ In elementary school, I connected a self-contained buzzer to a pushbutton to a 9 V battery to use in class Jeopardy games. :) Can't get much more simple than that. I could follow directions and make working circuits with an electronics kits, but never really understood them until late high-school/college. Digital logic is a good idea. \$\endgroup\$
    – endolith
    Apr 11, 2011 at 18:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ "One possible project is an electronic die." Die, singular of dice. Building something that would display a random. Can't help you with the rest though. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 12, 2011 at 0:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "I would stay away from anything so complicated that you only can use it as a black box". That's the problem I'm having when looking for electronics kits for my kids. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt White
    Feb 14, 2021 at 18:52
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I recommend the Snap Circuits sets for basic electronics.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the suggestion. I took a look at some of the kits and I think they are a bit too "toyish." They look perfect for my six year old, but not my 13 year old. In addition, I think learning to work with the "real" components will be a better foundation for future learning. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 11, 2011 at 20:22
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At that sort of age you can definitely get them soldering and even designing circuits - there is a regular show that comes to the Edinburgh festival that my kids went to and got to do the full build (not design) of solar powered audio circuits and stylophone equivalents, including the soldering at age 4.

They can certainly cope mentally - it's just like building with lego or meccano - but be aware it will probably take one instance of dropping a soldering iron on a hand or leg for them to really believe you that it hurts a lot :-)

I would also recommend kits such as these ones from sciencekits.com as they do help you pick up the basics without really needing much in the way of tools.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah it hurt when I had the soldering iron on the floor and was really unorganised with my work and I burned my ancle \$\endgroup\$
    – skyler
    Apr 2, 2013 at 12:16
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What about dcaclab ? students can learn online, and its fun too :)

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