Making electronics projects more accessible

Increasing accessibility to electronics projects is a mission that resonates with me.  Personally, I find the autonomy and self-sufficiency that comes with “making” to be very rewarding.  With hobbyist sites such as Adafruit and Sparkfun, we have plenty of (inexpensive) resources at our disposal.  As the technology advances, these resources become cheaper – which is a good thing – and smaller – which is a mixed bag.

When I visit my family for the holidays, my father and I inevitably make our way to his computer and “makerspace” filled with Raspberry Pis, 3D printed camera cases, a soldering iron older than me, and the huge magnifying glass to help identify which GPIO is GND and which is 3.3V.  My Dad was very proficient with electronics back in the day, and the resurgence of interest in electronics brought upon by the Raspberry Pi and the likes has made my (sadly too infrequent) visits with my family much more rewarding and enjoyable.  (Not that they haven’t always been enjoyable, MoM!)

One of the challenges I see my Dad face (and I will undoubtedly face in the future as well) is that the electronics are simply too small for big hands and aging eyes to use effectively.  I’ll debug some of my Dad’s non-functioning breadboards only to find that there’s a row of connections that have been shifted, and everything would be connected properly if he could see the pins more clearly.

During one of my previous visits, my Dad showed me a project he’s working on to get my nephew interested in robotics.  Perhaps you’ve come across this kit.

It’s got motors, gears, switches and levers in plastic enclosures that snap into a bread-board like plastic base.  Wired connections can be made through springs that snap into the base.  What struck me about the kit is that it contains most of the components that my Dad wants to fiddle around with.  The only major component missing is a way to control the components via a computer.

We solved this problem by purchasing a generic motor driver breakout board and connected it to a Raspberry Pi.  Then, using Scratch we were able to set up a GPIO server to create some simple toggles to turn the motors on and off (which I’ve done in my building a spectrometer with Scratch activity).  Here’s a proof-of-concept video.

Clearly, there’s much to be done in order to finish this project.  There are some power issues to be resolved (the ball is supposed to float in the air) but in principle, I think we’ve demonstrated a pathway to creating a means to provide access to computer controlled electronics to hobbyists that may find the small component sizes burdensome and frustrating.  I’ve got a number of projects on my plate at the moment, but here are my thoughts on “the complete package”

  • Create an enclosure for a DC motor driver that can be integrated into the base
  • Design a Raspberry Pi breakout board (essentially a Pi cobbler for this base)
  • Create 3D printed enclosure designs to allow for additional components to be created
  • Create a laser cut pattern for the base, allowing makers to customize the base either by changing its shape or material (the plastic used in the kit is very flimsy).
  • Develop design guide for the previous two points so other makers interested in the project can contribute.

I’m still in the brainstorming phase of this project, and really just exploring the market for such an idea.  I also googling electronic kits for kids shows me that I’m not the first person to think about this problem.  Analogous platforms geared towards an older generation of makers are not readily available, which makes me think there is a niche worthy of carving out.

At the very least, it gives my Dad and me something to chat about when it gets too dark to build electronics and we have to go sit on the porch and drink a beer.


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