This week, three of us* attended a Tinker meeting where we heard about some great technology programs in libraries, felt a little overwhelmed, learned to solder, and built a Racing Robot. Our full review after the jump. *Sharon, Kim, and Heather
What is it?
The Racing Robot is made up of two printed circuit boards (PC boards), a handful of electronics components (resistors, diodes, LEDs, capacitors, and the like), a battery, and a motor. Components are soldered on to the boards, the boards are attached, wheels and a battery are added, and if all goes well, you’ve created a robotic car.
What’s in the Box?
All of the pieces are included, as well as the PC boards. The kit also includes a hand full of practice pieces – real electronics components that can be used to learn how to solder before building the robot. These pieces are separated out and clearly marked.
What else is needed?
This kit requires that you have a number of other items: A soldering iron, solder, needle nosed pliers, wire clippers, solder wick (which is used to recapture excess solder) and a 9V battery are essential. A “helping hand” or “third hand” which is a stand with alligator clips that allows you to use both of your hands and not worry about holding the board isn’t essential, but is highly recommended.
This kit sells for $16.85. The soldering iron and additional supplies could cost as little as $10 and aside from the solder, can be reused for future projects.
The librarian who presented the program has done similar projects with his 6th-8th graders and would consider using this kit with them as well. That seems a good age for the end product, but because of the difficulty, we recommend that you start with a small group – ideally kids you already know will be able to handle the hot soldering iron responsibly – or older teens. Ask yourself how comfortable you would be with the group using hot glue guns to attach seed beads to a credit card, then add an extra layer of caution.
How we acquired it
The kit we built was provided free of charge by the Tinker group.
Ideas for use:
time involved? one-time or recurring program?
It took the three of us close to two hours to build the kit. If this kit were used in a library program, we suggest planning for at least that much time, or splitting it into two or even three sessions. One suggested scenario is:
- Day 1: Learn to solder; attach the practice pieces, then remove them
- Day 2: Begin building the robot
- Day 3: Complete the robot, test, troubleshoot, race
Once you have a handle on the kit, you could dig into each electronic component and learn why it does what it does. If your group is building multiple kits, comparing one to another and having a conversation about what worked best is another option. And of course, racing the kits! The biggest extension though is taking the knowledge of how to solder into other projects.
skills you need
Patience, perseverance, and a sense of humor were essential for us. Since this kit is a “learn to solder” project, participants need not know how to solder going into the program, but you, as the facilitator should absolutely know how to solder before instructing the kids. Build this kit on your own and you’ll have enough experience to help them. You can also learn from our mistakes! As you can see in the picture here, we placed the components on top of the board and soldered underneath them. It was pretty tricky at times. Turns out we were assembling it all upside down and should’ve pushed the components up through the other side of the board, then soldered them to the PCB, then trimmed the extra bits off. Easy, right? Now you know. You’re welcome.
We learned how to solder! It worked*! It was even kind of fun after we got the hang of it. It was cool to see these random pieces become a Real Thing that really did something too.
*Ok, it sort of worked. Assembling it upside down meant that some of our circuitry was bad. The lights didn’t turn on, and we blew a resistor.
The instructions for this kit are definitely not beginner friendly. Pieces aren’t clearly marked, terminology is not well explained, and everything is crammed together, leaving little white space for the eye (or mind) to rest. If you use this kit, we strongly suggest rewriting your own instructions for the group. Sharon suggested that a intro activity would be giving kids a paper template with paper “components” that they could attach in the correct places. Learning the placement of the components was tricky, and we were glad that we could remove pieces a few times. Another intro activity might be explaining the markings on resistors. At the suggestion of the group leader, we used a resistor calculator to determine what goes where, and this proved to be an invaluable tool. Another helpful guide would be photographs of the different components with their names. For us, never having had to distinguish a capacitor from a diode, the descriptions and electrical schematics were not enough.