Just yesterday I stumbled across a treasured bit of history while cleaning out the garage. It was a brochure I had picked up at the 1989 National Science Teacher’s convention in Atlanta. (That tells you the archeological depths plumbed in my latest foray) Despite the fact that I had seen neither hide nor hair of them for the last seventeen years, it turns out they still exist. I was overjoyed to reconnect with the small German company via Google and discover that their line of electronics kits are still available and have even expanded in number.
I have always felt that there has been a large, longstanding, and gaping hole in today’s educational system where electronics should be. It seems almost criminal to me that most children are never really introduced to the technology that has become the very foundation of modern society, telecommunications, computing, networking, media, and entertainment industries. Those who are introduced, rarely see a circuit more complicated than a battery and a light or motor until their undergraduate days. And by that time, the ranks of the interested have been so thinned that we have lost a majority of the potential audience and ranks of latent scientists and engineers.
There have certainly been significant barriers to administering an introductory electronics program to elementary and high school students, ranging from the complexity of interconnecting ever shrinking parts of ever increasing complexity to the hazards of extremely hot soldering irons in tiny hands. But these are functional barriers that tend to mask rather simple and fundamental concepts that could otherwise be approachable at a surprisingly young age. And while lamenting the situation, I had never managed to discover a way to practically surmount these barriers until I found Lectron, GMBH.
The Lectron kits are a wonder of fine German design and engineering unsurpassed in the educational materials market. (They are also pretty pricey, but worth every penny.) Each kit includes an extensive set of electronic components, each of which is individually packaged in a sturdy Lego-like plastic block with magnetized contacts and the industry-standard symbol for the part stenciled on the top face. The steel back-plate can be used as a ground plane to which the magnetized circuit blocks stick, and the process of building circuits is literally reduced to playing with blocks that naturally stick together.
The instructional and guide books are wonders of inspiration with hordes of example circuits. And while a little German reading skill could be helpful, assembly is just so darn simple that you don’t really need more than the example pictures. Any child that can build something with Legos can now build ever more complex electronic circuits with no other training or materials. They can build ANYTHING! (assuming you buy them the deluxe kit with enough pieces!) It comes complete with batteries, meters, resistors, capacitors, transistors, interconnect, LEDs, motors, switches, buttons, solar cells…damn near anything you can imagine.
Check out the range of circuits from a few of their example books:
Lectron pitches the intro kits as appropriate for children ages of 9 and over, but I suspect the simpler circuits and easy block assembly could be accessible starting at ages 5 and 6. In fact, I am ordering a kit for my four-year-old today, and if she doesn’t like it yet, my wife and I will play with it until she is ready.
As for schools, I should think every school in America and eventually the entire country’s economy could benefit strongly from having a dozen of these kits lying around for students to play with instead of shooting spit balls at each other. I might even be convinced to donate a few of them to worthy causes.