The Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences (CaMS) participated in Joliet’s eleventh annual Kidzfest on Saturday, August 1. The event, which gives kids a chance to learn and have fun at the same time, was sponsored by Lewis University, and several academic departments hosted activities that introduced children to their respective fields. This was the tenth time CaMS hosted a booth.
Over the years, CaMS has offered a variety of activities at its booth: Lego Mindstorms, Aibo the robotic dog, software-controlled Finch robots, Sumobots, the Scribbler, a Mame cabinet that was made by the Prometheon student technology group, and video games – lots and lots of video games. And the video games have always been a big hit, because kids apparently love to play video games, even outside in ninety-degree heat.
But this year was different. We brought eight computers for the kids to play modern versions of classic video games like Frogger, Q-Bert, and Space Invaders. We also ran a math game called Leon’s Math Dojo for kids to test their arithmetic skills. But the computers sat idle most of the time. Instead, we spent the entire fest teaching kids about electronics using outstanding build-it-yourself kits called Little Bits.
We used two different Little Bits kits. With the Deluxe Kit, we taught kids how to build circuits to power motors, lights, and horns. We also demonstrated the differences between full-rotation motors and servo motors and between series and parallel circuits. The kids saw how the order in which components are connected affects the circuit’s operation. We even showed them how to build their own motor using a AA battery, a wood screw, a rare earth magnet, and a strand of wire. With the Synth Kit, we helped the children build a music keyboard and then customize the sound using delays, filters, and waveform envelopes. Needless to say, lots of very interesting sounds came from our booth. The kids got to be makers and musicians all at once.
These kits provide an engaging look at how malleable electricity is. Electricity powers motors. By changing the polarity and amplitude of the electrical signal, we change the motor’s speed and direction. Amazingly, electricity also powers circuits that make music. By taking the current, chopping it up into chunks, changing the length of each chunk, shaping the amplitude of each chunk strategically over time, and mixing various chunks with each other, some amazing sounds emerge. Even with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, I gained a new appreciation for the power and flexibility of electricity and electronics from these Little Bits kits.
Kids love to play. When they make things, they get to play and to learn in the most memorable and enjoyable of ways. They enjoy it so much, in fact, that they even manage to put the joysticks down for a little while. Lesson learned.