An essential part of learning is via play. As children we learn how things work, and as adults we often find unique solutions when tinkering with a problem. No matter our age or skill level, we learn new skills by getting hands on with the problem. Electronics and coding are two hands on and highly sought after skills, largely thanks to boards such as the Arduino and Raspberry Pi which have popularized the STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.
STEM Box from CircuitMess is an electronics subscription service which will send one kit every quarter starting from November 2020. Each kit is designed to fulfill a single project. STEM Box 1 is a voice assistant, Spencer. Children build the kit using the included tools and then code Spencer to show animations across 128 pixels of RGB LEDs and to react to voice input.
STEM Box 2 is JAY-D a DJ mix table, coming in a clear acrylic case and powered by an ESP32 micro controller. The child will learn how to build the kit, code the music mixing functionality, and share their music online and via Bluetooth. STEM Box 3 is a self driving AI car which uses a camera to avoid obstacles and recognize QR codes to perform certain tasks. Further kits see a retro game console, encrypted wireless communication and a smartwatch.
No matter the skill level of the learner or of the adult, these kits are designed with play in mind. The child is learning by doing, not blindly following an instruction guide. To code the kits rather than use a typed language such as Arduino, Python or Lua. CircuitMess kits are coded using CircuitBlocks, an open source block coding language which works as a front end for the Arduino CLI. The child can assemble the blocks of code and learn how an algorithm is built and easily edit any mistakes. For older children there is also a text based editor in CircuitBlocks which closely mimics the Arduino IDE.
CircuitMess are currently seeking funding via Kickstarter. They have already secured more than their intended goal, but with more pledges they can unlock “stretch goals” offering more features and rewards to their backers. Pledges start from $79 for STEM Box 1 and rise to $579 for a nine STEM Box pack delivered every three months, so this deal would provide kits up to November 2022.
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Les Pounder is an associate editor at Tom's Hardware. He is a creative technologist and for seven years has created projects to educate and inspire minds both young and old. He has worked with the Raspberry Pi Foundation to write and deliver their teacher training program "Picademy".