What projects can a sixth-grader interested in electrical engineering start with?

That’s just about the right time to start learning about simple circuits and the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism…

By Sarah Jensen

What middle schooler isn’t fascinated by gadgets — the inner workings of a panel of blinking lights, how to control the volume of a buzzer, communicating with best friends via walkie-talkie? It’s even more fun when they can claim a quiet corner of Dad’s workshop and build the devices themselves, and get a valuable grounding in physics and the basic concepts of electronics.  

The first step is a Google search for “electronics kits,” recommends Srini Devadas, a professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “There are thousands of kits out there, and kids should have no trouble finding one based on their interests.” Supplies and instructions for everything from telegraphs to flashlights to burglar alarms are available and include documentation explaining electronics fundamentals and even a bit of theory.  

Students might also encourage their teachers to participate in initiatives such as A World in Motion (AWIM), suggests Devadas. AWIM is geared to kids from kindergarten through high school, offering hands-on experience building increasingly complex devices, and the chance to learn basic engineering principles. AWIM’s middle school curriculum involves the entire classroom in building gravity cruisers and gliders and motorized toy cars — imparting in the process basic laws of physics, motion, flight, and electronics.  

Devadas’ own childhood experiments began his lifelong fascination with electronics and laid the foundation for his career in computer design and architecture. When he was 10, he studied books of circuit diagrams and followed the directions to create his first device, an apparatus that automatically switched a light bulb on and off. “Doing that taught me about resistors and capacitors and voltage,” he says. “Not having to manually turn the light on or off seemed magical to me!”  

A more sophisticated project was an AM radio, a project that involved cutting apart his audio headphones to create the female end of the wiring necessary to complete an electric circuit. “That’s part of the learning process, too,” he explains. “As you’re building things, you’re also developing problem-solving skills. Once you understand the notion of a circuit, you can look at the wires you’re working with and intuit how to fit them together.

“Understanding how simple circuits work and the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism is relatively easy for a sixth-grader,” Devadas says. “There are layers and layers of sophistication as circuits get more complicated, but once you have the basics down, you can confidently take your skills to the next level.”

Thanks to Yeriel, 11, from Cotonou, Benin, for this question.  

Posted: February 7, 2012

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