There is a wide variety of creative projects which can help introduce children to the world of microcontrollers. A microcontroller is simply a small computer that can interact with the outside world. It can connect different types of "inputs" (such as sensing a motion, force, or temperature change) to "outputs" (turn on a light, start a motor, make a sound). Microcontrollers are not just the brains of robots, in the rather quaint way that most of us still think of walking/talking robotic creatures. Microcontrollers are embedded everywhere in household appliances, cars, and children's toys. When your child squeezes a battery powered doll to make it talk? Microcontroller. When you make coffee in that fancy new coffee maker or control the temperature on your new household thermostat? Microcontroller. With some simple projects, children can take a first step toward understanding the basic hardware and software concepts that underlie so much of the technology they encounter in their daily lives. For parents who find modern gizmos mysterious (and, let's face it, sometimes intimidating!) these introductory projects can be insightful as well.
There are several children's toy-building environments that utilize programmable microcontrollers (such as Lego Mindstorms or Fischertechnik). There are also do-it-yourself microcontroller systems used for years by hobbyists and tech-savvy kids (such as the BASIC Stamp kits available at Radio Shack stores).
But the type of microcontroller that is gaining favor rapidly for creative older children's projects is known as an "arduino." An arduino microcontroller is based on an "open source" (non-commercial, publicly-licensed) design, and many small companies have sprung up recently to fabricate arduinos and related step-by-step project kits and accessories. Free software for programming arduinos is available for most laptop computers, which then connect to the arduino to download programs. The "Make" community (organizer of the wildly popular "Maker Faire" events, and the online Makezine) has embraced arduinos, and their web page is probably as good a place to start as any (blog.makezine.com/arduino). For girls who might appreciate a very cool, geeky female role model in this traditionally male domain, check out Lady Ada. Lady Ada (a/k/a Limor Fried) is a recent MIT masters graduate who started her own company selling arduino-related kits with easy-to-follow online instructions.
The first introductory project everyone does with an arduino is called "Blink." There are step-by-step instructions for Blink from many different online sources. It involves programming a microcontroller to simply blink an LED (light emitting diode) on and off. The book “Getting Started with Arduino” is a good entry point. Starting with the Blink example, one can incrementally move up to more complex projects with small motors, lights and various types of sensors. The book and accompanying beginner’s kits are available from many sources such as Sparkfun. Blinking jewelry and clothing, talking teddy bears, halloween robot monsters…..you'll find all sorts of creative applications via Make and other websites, including help forums and step-by-step youtube videos. Be forewarned, however, that tinkering with arduinos takes patience as you learn to navigate thru the minor troubleshooting issues that arise. Like much of engineering, there's nothing terribly forbidding here as long as you tackle the little problems incrementally and cultivate your own innate common sense. Just the right type of challenge for the budding engineer!
Michael R. Duffey is associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), George Washington University. Duffey is interested in how physical engineering systems are economically designed, built, and operated. Along with many other SEAS faculty, he is working on new ways to attract young people to engineering and related curriculum in SEAS undergraduate programs.