As if my regular readers were not already certain of my nerd status, particularly as a quiet late-eighties and early nineties teenager, I’d like to introduce you to the junior electrical engineer that I never was.
See, when I was –well, lets say older than 12 but younger than high school– I somehow managed to lay my hands on one of those classic Radio Shack brand 130-in-One Electronic Project Lab kits. Onto a little frame of plastic and moderately sturdy cardboard, a few dozen electronic doodads were mounted –capacitors, transistors, switches, and dials– and to each terminal a little connection spring protruded from the surface. The idea was simple: load in some double-As, use a few handfuls of the supplied wires to connect the springs (and thus the electronic doodads) into circuits a’la the supplied instruction manual, and voila… electronic wonder ensues.
Implementation was not so simple: the instructions were complex, the wires were finicky, and after what often amounted to thirty minutes of patient wiring the results tended to be non-existent. At least for me. Maybe other kids had more success, but I think I spent more time trying to find six working batteries than building kits.
Conceptually, these little project kits filled a gap in time and space that was suited to pre- and early computer era nerd-dom. Kids (and big kids) with an interest in tinkering with the machinations of early circuitry and basic engineering could ground themselves in the fundamentals of electronics. Today, any kid with a computer can use one of a dozen coding tools, they can build complex robots with LEGO, or even just pull out their tablet and construct complex logic-based constructions in 3D in Minecraft.
In other words, there doesn’t seem to be the same market for fundamental electronics kits this far into the computer age. Call it nostalgia if you will, but having gleaned a couple hundred hours of joy-blended-frustration with my own kit back in my youth, that’s a shame.
So when we were perusing the grand opening of a toy store that opened near our house on the weekend and I stumbled across the modern incarnation of my childhood nerd-fix, it didn’t take much convincing to throw down some cash and add it to the collection of nerd-skill toys that we have in our house these days.
The concept has evolved considerably, however: gone are the springs and wires. Gone is the flimsy cardboard and delicate circuits protruding in a tangled mess from a sci-fi themed space box. In its place we have a product called Snap Circuits.
Oh, Snap! This is awesome!
We ended up settling on the “Snap Circuits Pro ® 500 Experiments” — the higher end, more expensive version which I judged from the box (and a quick Amazon query) to be a better size. The kit contained a reasonable collection of individual electronic components, each mounted to a geometrically regular plastic frame and whose contact-slash-connection points are composed of metal snaps — as the kind you might have on a piece of clothing or a handbag.
And there are a wide variety of doodads to link up: the standards like capacitors, transistors and switches are all there of course, along with a few interesting sensors, but unlike my ancient kit from the eighties this new iteration includes a small collection of mounted ICs that bring electronics design in the twenty-first century with recording chips, FM tuner, sound effects and the like.
Included also is a plastic breadboard-like frame upon which the assembly of the five hundred various projects occurs –and there are a lot of projects, even ignoring the obvious number-fudging redundancy that comes from counting ten slight variations of basically the same project as ten different projects (DING!).
As for reception: Claire jumped right into the toy. I couldn’t have been a prouder nerd-dad than watching my eight-year-old first building a handful of the projects as diagrammed, then adding her own little improvisations to them to customize the result to her own amusement. Sure, I’ll admit it’s not groundbreaking to add a light or alter the kind of switch on another circuit, but it made me realize how quickly she picked up on the idea of serial electronics within thirty minutes of tinkering with this kit.
One disappointment was the “learning aspect” …and I’m not an electrical engineer by any stretch, but fortunately I know enough of the basics (like how to tell a capacitor from a resistor, and have a basic understanding of what they do, too) that I was able to supplement the bare-bones educational features of the instruction manuals. I mean, yes, the kit is sturdy and the projects are clever, but besides telling you what to expect if the thing works, there is sadly little in the instructions to explain why it works… which would have been a nice feature for budding nerds (DING!). If anyone from ELENCO is reading… nerd with an education degree here: I’m open to offers!
So, we’ve had the kit for about two days and in those two days we’ve tried out at least a couple dozen projects and in doing so worked our way through some of both the more fundamental stuff and also skipped ahead to build some of the more impressive “WowWee!” projects, too. And the kid is fascinated… which means I feel like I may be able to get my money’s worth after a while.
So far… recommended.