by Bryan Bergeron, Editor by Bryan Bergeron, Editor
How Old is Old Enough?
One of the most often asked questions in my inbox is ‘how old is old enough to begin working with
electronics?’ The answer, of course, is that it depends
on the individual, what you mean by ‘working with,’ and
the amount of supervision provided by an experienced
or at least alert adult.
I began disassembling radios and electric toys as
soon as I could handle a screwdriver. When I was 11,
I built a ham radio transmitter with parts recycled from
a discarded TV — working alone in my father’s
Today, allowing an unsupervised 11 year old to
disassemble a potentially lethal high voltage circuit
probably constitutes child abuse in some states.
Fortunately, the CRT has been supplanted by the lower
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voltage LCD display and modern electronics, in general,
operate at relatively harmless voltages.
If you’re looking to introduce electronics to an
eight or nine year old, I’m a big fan of the Snap Circuits
series which is sort of like LEGOs with embedded
components. The entry-level model is around $30 from
Amazon. With color-coded LEGO-like components, you
and your youngster can build over a hundred different
circuits — from a water alarm to a timer.
The problem with the series is that the user manual
is written for someone who can read at a high-school
level. So, the kit is great for pre-teens, as long as
someone who can read the manual and explain the
circuits supervises them.
Although the Snap Circuit and similar products can
be used by teens, the solderless electronic breadboard
approach is more fitting for capable hands. It takes a
good deal of dexterity to plug in ICs without bending
the leads. A breadboard and battery or simple power
supply and a handful of components are not only
inexpensive, but relatively limitless in terms of circuit
However, unlike the Snap Circuit, it’s easy to cross
connections and burn out components — that is, unless
there’s someone watching over the builder’s shoulders.
There’s also something to be said for the experience of
burning up a few inexpensive components — the lesson
can carry over to more expensive circuits later.
If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know
that I’m a big fan of teardowns, especially when they’re
supervised. Nothing can beat a knowledgeable person
tearing down a smoke alarm, compact fluorescent bulb,
or other device with a step-by-step description of
components and circuit theory. One of my early
mentors used to walk me through a teardown and then
hand me the tools and let me reassemble everything. I’d
often end up with a few extra screws here and there,
but the lessons stuck.
The real challenge today is making the introduction
to electronics memorable and exciting. After all,
electronics as a hobby has evolved considerably since
the days when computers were fabricated with discrete
components. For example, if your project culminates in a
blinking LED, it’s probably not going to compete well
with your smart phone or tablet.
I’ve had good success using robotics as a vehicle for
circuit design and testing. It’s no Angry Birds app, but a
walking robot — regardless of how simple — is bound to
capture the interest of youngsters of any age. NV