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How to hook your kid on programming and electronics without really trying

Every summer, I challenge my kids with what I call “deep learning” projects. Last year, my son took on the cold war by chronicling the beginning-to-end-history of the iron curtain and my daughter wrote an essay on the life of colonial American women. This year, my son told me he wants to learn to write C programs  – so I made that his deep learning project. I am hoping that my daughter (3 years younger) takes an interest and also wants to do these projects with us.

I wanted to do more than have him install an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) on his laptop and write code that would have little impact or use. I wanted to do something more interactive so that his code could “do” things in the physical and digital worlds. That’s where Arduino comes in.

My dad bought a crystal radio project for me when I was in my early teens and I remember the pleasure upon tuning in the first radio station. It was a breadboard, wire, component thing, but it worked and it taught me about circuits, resistors, current, voltage, potentiometers and more.

40 years later, the tech has advanced … a lot. Now, Arduino microcontrollers (small CPUs integrated into a board) are cheap and widely-supported. With this in mind, my son and I are embarking on a summer of tech. We will build all sorts of gadgets, robots, tools and toys based on the Arduino chips and we want to take you along.

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Arduino controllers are programmed using C and are bootstrapped so that no separate “programmer” module is needed. Instead, just plug any laptop or computer to the Arduino through a USB cable and use the Arduino IDE to write, validate and upload code.

Arduino microcontroller

Arduino “UNO” microcontroller

Project packs vary in the number and type of components they offer. Some include motors, LCD screens, joystick controllers, fans, and more. The Arduino microcontroller can be programmed to read data from a huge selection of digital and analog sensors and can output information to or control a ton of devices and the costs are unbelievably low.

Arduino

There are also a ton of books out there to help new hacker-makers, as they are called, to get into the hobby.

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Our goal is to start simple, incrementally build up our electronic integration and C programming skills and by the end of the summer, design, build and code our own complete module including the use of a prototyping board and soldered connections – a more permanent approach to building devices.

Prototyping board with soldered connections

Prototyping board with soldered connections

I will outline and review every book we buy, every kit we purchase and every project we undertake.

If you want to get close to your gadget-loving kids, this might be the series for you. Stay tuned for more updates.

NEXT: Picking an Arduino starter kit and some books

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About Duncan Idaho

Duncan is a science and technology editor for CDN. Any opinions expressed in his articles are his own and not necessarily shared by CDN, its staff, officers, or their pets.
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