Review by C.J. Bunce
RadioShack was founded 100 years ago, and for most of those decades it has been the go-to supplier for anyone interested in electronics. Not just for professionals, but it’s where students went to make things if they had even a remote interest in electronics. The new incarnation of RadioShack is little different, less storefronts but an endless online supply of materials and ideas that what was once the exclusive purview of kids in the A/V Club. It is now something any young person can–and should–become proficient in. I knew as soon as I saw the Mand Labs kits on the new RadioShack website that this kind of product can and should be part of the future of STEM learning–whether at home or in schools. So I reviewed the Mand Labs STEM Electronics Kit (KIT-1) to see if it’s as good as it looks.
Not only does the kit have everything you need–all the technological components to create more than 60 educational and fun projects–the even bigger value is the set of two textbook/workbooks, which provide all the theory, math, history, and core science so students understand the how and why. With the books, digital videos, and online resources that come with the kit, even a young grade schooler can learn the fundamentals of electricity, physics, computer science, robotics, and electrical engineering. And for adults, say you’re a cosplayer and you want to wire a helmet or chest box with lights and sound, or maybe you want to understand better why you can’t get your electronic fan or doorbell to work, or always wondered how the electric systems of your automobiles work, this kit will help you get started.
The most fun of physics and chemistry are the labs, right? Let’s look at the work center and components first. The kit includes a sturdy cardboard and plastic tool box that unfolds into a work space, chock full of all the components needed to complete the 60+ projects (and continue experiments beyond the materials in the texts). Those include a digital multimeter, a breadboard, a potentiometer, a DC motor, a bump switch, two STDT switches, a relay, leads, wire rolls, transistors, capacitors, presets, resistors, light dependent resistors, multicolored LEDs, a diode, a Zener diode, a buzzer, a fan, a screwdriver, a wire cutter, and two 9-volt batteries. Note: compared to other circuit board learning methods, the breadboard allows for repeat reuse of materials without the need of soldering. If you make a mistake, simply try again.
What’s the point of making cool projects if you can’t expand and make other things with the knowledge you’ve learned? That’s the value of the two textbooks. With concise background and instructive guides, students can learn the theory behind electricity, how and why circuits work, all while building them and experimenting with step-by-step graphics and photographs. This includes the scientific language of documenting on paper what the circuit looks like, how it will perform, mathematically. Recommended for grades 6-12, much of the information in the texts easily could be found in a high school or first level college course in electricity and electronics. Beyond the texts is a nine-hour video library, and dedicated technical support. The videos are included on a flash drive. The creators have attempted to make these videos fun, and they are full of goofy references and the kind of teaching style kids would find from “Bill Nye the Science Guy” episodes–targeted to younger kids as opposed to older teens. You can use the books alone or in conjunction with the videos–if you get stuck in the text, jump to the corresponding video.
Key concepts taught include electric potential energy, creating and reading circuit diagrams, current, AC and DC, current capacity, amperes, resistors and resistance, LEDs, using a breadboard for experiments and planning, conductors, insulators, semiconductors, Ohm’s Law, variable resistors, potentiometers, using presets as voltage dividers, connecting resistors, differences in switches and applications, charging and discharging capacitors, understanding relays, diodes, using a Zener diode as voltage regulator, understanding logic gates and their role in computing, using DC motors, transistor basics, and understanding the basics of signals, pulses, and waves. Experiments include lighting with LEDs, making a buzzer and fan, create “staircase” lighting, use a bump switch to make a model burglar alarm, use a DC motor as generator, plus several experiments using transistors, including making an automatic night lamp, and lots more.
Working on projects a few hours at a time, you’ll have several weeks of activities ahead. The great added value over comparable project kits is the set of workbooks, videos, and access to online help. You can replicate these kinds of experiments in other ways, but if you’re not taking away the theory and fundamentals as found in these materials, you’re probably not going to be able to maximize your knowledge and build on what you learn.
Mand Labs STEM Electronics Kit (KIT-1) is an incredible home project for the summer, for educators to incorporate in their classrooms, and for anyone wanting to learn more about electronics, the principles of electrical engineering, and how computers work. It’s available from RadioShack. Thanks to RadioShack for sharing this great learning tool and fun project kit.