It’s a physics year. Both boys are studying the subject with friends under the tutelage of yours truly. It’s been a good deal of work (see Working at My Edge), given my one and only physics course was over 20 years ago and was the semester on kinetics and heat transfer. Having convinced myself that I could indeed do well in the course for engineering majors, I moved on to other pursuits that didn’t involve hinky lab equipment and equations to memorize. When electricity came up in both boys’ curriculum (CPO Foundations in Physics for teens and CPO Physical Science for the preteens), I knew I had some studying to do. I’m keeping up well, thank you very much, and some of my sense of confidence came from a small circuit kid from the start-up EEME.
EEME pairs hands-on projects (just one now, the Genius Light) utilizing real electronic components — a breadboard, four wires, two resistors, one white LED, a photoresistor, a battery box with a switch and wires, two AA batteries, and a box to hold the Genius Light. Not sure what some of that stuff is? No problem. EEME provides video instructions including explanations of the why behind the steps on their website for no extra charge. According to the website, the activities are appropriate for ages 7 to 12 with the intent of teaching electrical engineering concepts. I picked up my Genius Light kit during a promotion, paying only $10 for a kit that retails for $50. At this writing, this is the only kit available, although two more appear to be coming soon (a DIY Display kit and Buzz Wave kit).
So how does it work? Essentially, you watch the video with the kit in front of you, building as you go. There are 45 minutes of video broken into 22 bite-sized pieces. After two introductions, including a review of the contents of the kit, each piece of video is either an activity (building something on the board), a question (a single multiple choice question about material learned), or informational (labeled “learn” and designed to teach about circuitry). In general, the activity comes first, with the instructor giving step-by-step detailed information about what to put where. Explanation of the path of the circuit is repeated at the end of the step, with further information about the hows and whys appearing in the “learn” sections. The instructor speaks clearly and at a reasonable pace, with only his hands and the equipment visible. He doesn’t joke but he does keep it interesting and moving along. It’s clearly the circuit that’s center stage, not the instructor. By the last step, you’ve built the Genius Light, a light that comes on in the dark (or even just a normally lit room on a cloudy day) and turns off in the light.
I integrated the project into the electricity study of my three younger (ten and eleven years old, all gifted learners). In previous weeks, we’d discussed electrical flow, had heated debates about the conventional direction of flow and reality of that direction, studied Ohm’s law a bit, and build circuits in series and parallel. In short, they were a prepared audience with plenty of ready knowledge. I had them preview the video at home before the build day, preferring familiarity with where we were going so the project would fit in the hour we have allotted for class. Any of them could have built and understood the circuit on the first pass through, however, but this did help our process as they built on Genius Light together.
I’d been concerned about the fine motor control required to work on such a tiny board. Finding one’s place on the breadboard isn’t easy and, at least for my eyes, requires good light. They managed far better than I thought, and what they lacked in coordination they more than made up for with good eyesight and smaller fingers. As they progressed through the activity, they grew more comfortable with the (real) electronics and how to make them fit the space of the board. They were even quick to pick up the way a breadboard works, which isn’t easy, since the connections aren’t visible.
Overall, the quality of the kit was good. The electronic parts were standard, with the wires cut to the necessary length for the project, which made for easy identification (“Now take a short wire…”), made even more easy by the match of color of wire in the video to those in the kit. These small details make a big difference, as does having a kit ready-to-go out of the box. Warning: the thumb pins that hold in the battery pack and breadboard are as delicate as the instructor says they are, and I broke one putting in the battery pack despite thinking I was heeding the warning to be careful. This has no impact on the project, but I’d not expected the plastic to be that brittle. Be gentle with the case!
So what didn’t I like? The online information mentions eight quizzes. In reality, this is eight single questions. They’re pertinent questions but not worthy of the word “quiz.” Second, as clear as the video instructions are, I’d like to have a written set of instructions with diagrams to go with them. While it’s not hard to stop the video while building, I’d like a hard copy of the instructions to refer to, rather than just the audio. I’d also like circuit drawings and a diagram of the connections in a breadboard for teaching purposes.
Finally, and most significantly, I feel the $50 price tag is far too high, even with an excellent video (which is free to those not buying the kit). None of the electrical components are at all expensive or hard to obtain. If the containing box for the device is the big cost (It is clearly manufactured specifically for the product.), I’d gladly do with a piece of wood on which to mount the battery and breadboard with, if desired, a cardboard foldable top to display the lights. It’s just too much money for a single, hour-long project. Better yet, I’d like to see the kits bundled, with many projects in one box. While it seems it’s designed to be a permanent project to keep, I doubt this is a priority for many families. I’d rather have a kit I can reuse, creating new circuits after disassembling the old. After all, that’s the beauty of the breadboard — alterable circuits without the permanency and work of soldering.
Overall, the EEME Genius Light is a fine product with excellent instruction via video. There is nothing needed from the user to complete the kit, making it truly and open-and-do project. That’s appreciated. The electrical instruction is sound and clear, although an instructional insert with diagrams would add more to the learning experience and support those who don’t follow auditory directions well. Additionally, its price point is too high for a single-project kit. This makes it unlikely I’ll purchase the kits to come despite our enjoyment of the first one. If it fits your budget, however, the Genius Light from EEME is an excellent way to introduce your young learners (and yourself) to circuit building.
There are other options for taking education about circuits to the next level. Snap Circuits, while simple to build, contain advanced circuitry in even the 300 level kit. While I’ve heard many parents dismiss them as “too simple” for their kids over the age of six, I doubt they’re utilizing them fully, as there is far more to the sets than following the maps to build the circuits. The highest level kits include software for computer interface. While the instructions for Snap Circuits are scant, there is information along with the directions to help the learner grow their knowledge.
For students wanting more breadboard work and the ability to control a circuit with computer code, check out the Arduino. My older son’s been tinkering with that, relying on an excellent starter kit and booklet (a bit hard to find in the US but worth the search). This isn’t designed for the younger set, but the booklet provides excellent directions and information about the components included (tons of bits and parts, all reusable) as well as information about the circuits and programming. I don’t see him outgrowing that anytime soon.