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  1. I have been working on "STEM" activities with kids of all ages for quite some time. Usually it is with my own kids but often it has been with kids at schools or in the neighborhood. This activity has been very rewarding but there are a few challenges that can quickly make the experience less interesting for the kids and an exercise in frustration for you, the mentor. 1) Don't be spontaneous (but fake it well) - My daughter and I wired a display to a nano and wrote the code to count 0 to 9. This was a perfect bite sized project because I was able to write enough 7-segment abstraction (struct digit { int a:1; int b:1; etc...}; ) to quickly stick a number on the display and I left enough missing code to have her "help" by identifying which segments needed to be active to draw each number. This was a ton of fun and she was suitably engaged. However, on previous occasions we took on too much and the "library" that needed to be thrown together to bring the complexity into reach by a 7 year old was more that I could deliver inside her attention span. So you do need to be prepared for when the kids are motivated to play with electronics... but some of that preparedness might be a stock of ready to go code modules that you can tap into service. 2) Be Prepared with stuff. - I like to keep a pretty well stocked assortment of parts, tools and ingredients for many projects. With prices for components so cheap, I always buy a few extra's for the stock pile to enable a kid with a sudden itch to do something cool. Unfortunately, there are often a few unintended hurdles. For example: I have a large collection of 7-segment displays and a small pile of Arduino Nano's. 3) 3D printers are fun and interesting.... but laser cutters are better and scissors are best. We all like to show off the amazing things you can do with a 3d printer and I have 3 of them. Unfortunately, using a printer requires a few things. a) patience, b) learning to 3d model, c) patience. My kids are quite good at alerting me when my print has turned into a ball of yarn. But none of the kids has developed any interest in 3d modeling for the 3d printer. I also have a fairly large laser cutter. This is FAR more fun and the absolute best tool I have put into my garage. My laster cutter is 130W and cuts about 1.5meters x 1meter or so. We have cut the usual plywood and acrylic. We also cut gingerbread, fabric, paper, and cardboard. (Laser cut gingerbread houses taste bad) I can convert a pencil sketch into a DXF file in a few minutes....BUT the scissors are better for that quick and dirty experiment. which leads to.... 4) Fail Fast and with ZERO effort.... Kids HATE TO WASTE THEIR TIME. Of course what they consider wasted time and what you and I consider wasted time is a different discussion. For example: folding laundry is a waste of time because you will just unfold the laundry to wear the clothes. So it is better to jam everything under the bed. Taking 2 hours to design a 3d model for the laser cutter or 3d printer is a waste of time if the parts don't work when you are done. However, if you can quickly cut something out of cardboard with scissors or a knife, then the time cost is minimal and if it doesn't work out, they are not sad. I have often had a sad kid after an experiment that took a large amount of effort. I thought the experiment worked well and we all learned something but the "wasted effort" was a problem. I have also seen grownups ride a project down in flames because it was "too big to fail" or "we will have wasted all that money if we quit now".. This is the same problem on a grand scale as the kids. So teach them to fail fast and learn from each iteration. As the project develops, the cool tools will be used but not in the first pass. 5) Pick your battles. Guide your charges with small projects that can be "completed" in 30 minutes or so. DO NOT nag them to "finish" if it is not done on the first outing. If the kid finds that project fun, they will hound you to work on it with them. As they develop skills, they will work on parts themselves while you are not around. (watch out for super glue and soldering irons). This is the ideal situation. So you need to do teasers and have fun. They will come back to the fun projects and steer clear of boring ones. So what has worked for me? 1) Rockets. I have bought 12 packs of rockets as classroom kits. I keep a few on stock pile. Once you have a field to fly them you can always get an entire group of kids ready to fly small rockets in an hour or so and they are fun for all ages. 2) Paper Airplanes. Adults and kids can easily burn an afternoon with paper airplanes. Kids by themselves will quickly tire of it so teach them to fold a basic airplane, how to throw and add a little competition. Don't forget to include spectacular crashes as a competition goal because that will keep their spirits up when problems occur. 3) VEX Robotics. I have done FIRST robots, Lego League and VEX robotics. My favorite is VEX IQ because the budget can be reached by a small group of families and the field fits on the back porch. I did have to bribe one daughter who was doing the code with cookies. This started a tradition of "cookies and code". Each task completed earns a cookie. Each bug fixed is a cookie. The rewards are fantastic! 4) Robotics at Home. Robotics are good for kids because they incorporate so many aspects of engineering (Mechanical, Electrical, Software) into one package. You can easily fill in any of these elements while the child explores their interest. One of my daughters likes to build robots. Another likes to program them. I simply remove any technical obstacles, hopefully before they notice them coming. This allows them to keep living in the moment and solving the problems at their level. 5) SCIENCE!. Be prepared to take ANY question they have and turn it into a project. We launched baking soda & vinegar rockets. I did 3d print them so I had to plan ahead. We have also recreated Galileo's gravity experiments in our stairwell. We recorded the difference in the impact of different objects by connecting a microphone to an oscilloscope. We placed the microphone under a piece of wood so the objects would make a sharp noise. We then spent the time trying to release objects at exactly the same time. We used a lever to lift a car!. The child was 5. The lever was a 3 meter steel tube. The car was a small Jeep. We did not lift it very far and we bent the lever but the lesson was learned and will never be forgotten. 6) Change the Oil! Or any other advanced chore. Involve the child in activities that are beyond them but don't leave them stranded. I make sure my new drivers have changed the oil and a tire. I try to involve the younger kids just because they will be underfoot anyway. A child with engineering interests will be make their desires known. In the end you are providing an enriching experience for a child. Keep the experience short & sweet. The objective is to walk away THIS happy. If the experience is positive the child will come back for more. A future lesson can teach ohms law, or software abstraction. The first experiences are just to have fun and do something interesting. Please share your kid project ideas! Include pictures! Good Luck
  2. My 7 year old wants to be an engineer. She loves robots and programming. Just the other day, she asked how she "could be an engineer because I don't know everything". So for Christmas I gave her one of these: This was just perfect. It displaced one doll on her bed. It can be driven around with an IR remote control, but it can also record your button presses (i.e. be programmed) and then play them back. This sort of programming is just her speed. Here is a picture of Veronica studying her new programming book with the robot looking on.
  3. Those of us with kids are always looking for fun ways to introduce them to the world of embedded systems. In addition to VEX IQ and VRC competitions, my kids have enjoyed the code bug and scratch. I will place a number of products I have used with the kids as separate replies.
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