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Teaching kids electronics using wooden blocks

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.

16 thoughts on “Teaching kids electronics using wooden blocks

  1. RocketGuy says:

    My mom did exactly the same thing for me as a kid (long, long ago), so I paid forward by building a similar set for a teacher I knew. At the moment I have a bag of parts for more sets that I need to build for the neighbor’s kids.

    Thanks for the reminder/motivation!

  2. Chris Lirakis says:

    I remember a cool toy I got when I was about 9 or 10. Made by Raytheon it was called the Lectron kit and was very similar. All the parts were in clear plastic boxes. The top was engraved with the electrical symbol for the part. I had hours of fun!

  3. Nate says:

    A great remake of classic “toys”. I agree with the part about it making the components more accessible.

    I’ll have to make some of these for the kids I work with!

  4. migpics says:

    This rocks. Gives me some ideas of what to do with my spare parts at home! Thank you for the post!

  5. Paul C. says:

    Something that would make interconnection easier, FAHNESTOCK CLIPS. such as these:,8941.html for $7.25/25 pcs These have been in use for over a hundred years.

  6. Markus T Laumann says:

    I bought my girls some Snap Circuits recently because I like the idea of modules for teaching. I think this will be a great way that my girls can learn even more by taking apart broken toys and seeing how the parts can be reused.

    1. RocketGuy says:

      My problem with snap circuits is that they’re nicely packaged plastic parts. You don’t really get to see the actual bits inside as clearly. They’re not horrible, they did get my neighbor’s kid interested, so I still think that was a win, but…

      Don’t underestimate the value of deliberate crudeness of presentation. By making it a simple and open as possible, it removes the unconscious barriers of “I can’t make that” or “I can only make what the instructions say to” or “I have to have the parts made for me”.

      This is an aspect of consumer culture that deserves to be removed wherever possible. Giving a kid the opportunity to deal with the “real stuff” and discover that they can do what they want with it is a huge thing.

      I’d even have reservations about the Fahnestock clips, they’re really neat and all, but gator clips on jumper wire do the job in a way that is immediately accessible and actually more flexible.

      I now run an enterprise class network because my mom broke down that wall for her kid, and a 7 year old learned basic digital an analog electronics.

  7. migpics says:

    I have some snap circuits too for my two daughters but sometimes the focus is more on snapping than actually coming up with a circuit. I really like the idea of the alligator clips. Going to give it a shot this weekend.

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