Teaching kids electronics using wooden blocks

My friend Paul Marlier has a pretty fun gig at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. His job as a workshop specialist is to come up with new ways to teach science to children (and their parents!). Recently, he took a few minutes to explain his latest prototype, which is a set of wooden blocks with electronics on them that museum visitors can connect up in any way they like. The idea is that they can learn by trying out different things to see what happens. The blocks themselves are nothing more than squares of plywood with different components stuck to them, and finishing nails for binding posts that can be connected to using alligator clips. To run the activity, he sets them out on the table without instructions, and participants are invited to hook things up and see what happens.

Paul explained that he chose this simple design over commercial products because he wanted to emphasize that these are just parts that anyone could find and put together. So far, the blocks have met with great success, with some interesting results. His favorite moment of discovery was when an inquisitive child hooked a motor up to a battery, through a speaker- the result was an amplified version of the noise that the motor makes when running!

He’s certainly not the first person to construct a setup like this, however I like the homebrew way in which it is made. I’m also a huge fan of the radically different switches that all do basically the same thing.

Have you ever built something similar? Have any tips for how to improve the design, or suggestions for cool components to include? There are more photos of the setup in my Flickr stream.