My Three Dads
by Nick Landry
Yesterday was Fathers Day. I feel very lucky because I didn’t grow up with one father, I grew up with three fathers. My father, my stepfather and my godfather. All three had a presence and an important role in my life. I am eternally grateful to them. My dad was a career lawyer (pictured above right), and was always quite busy (he’s 76 and still not fully retired). He was there as a great provider and a role model, but he was not the kind of dad who would sit down and play with me, do home projects or spend too much time in my world. Thanks to him I grew up in a nice home with everything I needed, I learned good values, I had unforgettable summers of fun at camp, I learned tennis, I had private ski lessons and a season pass every winter, I got to go to a private high school, and I didn’t pay a dime for University. I’m only scratching the surface here, of course. Thanks Dad.
My godfather was also important to me. My godparents are family friends and I would spend a few weekends a year with them. He was always full of great advice and wisdom, he was fun, and it was thanks to his purchase of the original Macintosh in 1984 that I fell in love with computers. His son was also my childhood best friend, and my godfather treated me like a son. He was also there to listen to me and support me when I had a tough decision to make about my studies and my career. He taught me to follow my dreams. Thanks Pierre-André.
My parents got divorced when I was 9, which is about the age I was when my stepdad entered my life (pictured above left), and I entered his. I know that many unfortunately grew up in a life of conflict with stepparents, but I was blessed to have experienced the most “amicable and stable” divorce you could have for your parents. Both my mom and dad found new soul mates shortly after their separation – and have been with them since – for over 30 years now. My stepdad became that dad that spends time with you, plays with you, listens to you, works on projects with you, and gives you his full attention. We did video projects together – from live action to stop-motion LEGOs. He built a tree house at our summer cottage for me. He did so much renovation work for my new bedroom in the basement, or new apartment, or new house. He filmed and created unforgettable video montages of so many happy moments of my life – including my wedding video. He did so much more, and he always treated me like his own son. Thanks Gaëtan.
Yesterday was also a special Fathers Day for me: it was my first “real” one as a dad. My kids were born shortly before Fathers Day last year but they came early and spent a few weeks in the hospital NICU. I was a father already but I was not truly taking care of them yet, we had an amazing staff of nurses and doctors to do that. Today my kids are 1 and it really felt like Fathers Day. Every since my wife got pregnant I’ve been reflecting on the kind of dad I want to be, in essence striving to take the best of my 3 dads and adding my own touch.
This post is not about how to be a good dad. I barely know that myself and I’ll be learning how to be one for the rest of my life. This post is about one special thing amongst a million that you can do to be a great dad: spend time with your kids and teach them electronics.
Left photo courtesy of MightyOhm
My First Electronic Kit
I got my first electronics kit in my early teens. It was a birthday gift from my stepdad. It was one of those popular Science Fair Electronic Project Labs by Tandy | Radio Shack. Mine was the awesome “160 choses à faire” (French for 160-in-1). Oh man, I had so much fun with this. For years I played with it. It was one of those things I could easily pack and bring with me to our cottage. It was safe thanks to these little coils letting you easily connect components without soldering. It was fun, I felt like I could create anything. I learned some electronics basics with it, but I also learned to read carefully. I was learning by reading, but it didn’t feel like homework because it was fun. And I learned patience. Some of those projects could get quite complex, requiring a lot of wiring. And I learned debugging, a skill that I still use today, which also requires a lot of patience. I would many times make a mistake when wiring a project, and I’d have to backtrack and figure out where I went wrong.
It didn’t end there. For years I would look at the Radio Shack catalog, searching for other cool stuff I could beg my parents for. There was a bigger version of this kit, the “200-in-1”. I can’t remember if I actually put it on some wish list, or if I never pulled the trigger to buy one with my savings, but I never got one. I eventually completely destroyed my 160-in-1 for a shop class project in high school and I regret it to this day. I do have fond memories of this kit, and this is something I want my kids to experience.
My kids are only 1 year old, but when they’re old enough, I’ll teach them electronics, and so should you.
Electronics, Video Games, Your Kids and You
There are many options you can explore if you want to teach your kids electronics. If you don’t know electronics, learn it with them. All the kit suggestions I’m listing below are pretty much self-explanatory. If you’re a technical individual (chances are good that you are if you’re reading my blog), you’ll pick it up in no time, and can then explain your kid how stuff works. You can spend time together, share victories and frustrations, you can build something, be a maker!
I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that you focus on electronics instead of other important developmental youth activities, such as sports or learning a musical instrument. I am suggesting that you add this to your “dad to-do list”. Extra curricular activities are super important, but they usually all involve driving your kid somewhere and adhering to a fixed schedule. Once your kids are back home, what do they usually do? Hopefully they enjoy reading and do their homework, but chances are they also like watching TV and playing video games.
I have nothing against TV and video games, I’m a huge gamer myself and I grew up with video games. But we’ve come a long way since Pac-Man and Donkey Kong and today’s games are much more “engrossing” (I hate using the word addictive when it comes to gaming). Fighting the lure of an Xbox One is a tough thing to do, and denying them access only leads to frustration on all sides. Video games played in moderation are just fine, but when it becomes too much, try redirecting their attention and interests towards electronics. If they inherited any of your techie genes, they’ll hopefully have fun and pursue it on their own.
Another clarification: Don’t be a cliché. Electronics are not just for boys. Have your little princess learn technical stuff too. You’ll be surprised. Girls are often more patient than boys, and might stick with it even more. She’ll be happy to share something with her dad.
Electronic Kits for All Ages
There are quite a few options to learn electronics. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but as far as I know, these are the most popular options.
Elenco Snap Circuits (age 8+)
Snap Circuits makes learning electronics easy and fun. Just follow the colorful pictures in the manual and build exciting projects such as AM radios, burglar alarms, doorbells and much more. You can even play electronic games with your friends. All parts are mounted on plastic modules and snap together with ease. Enjoy hours of educational fun while learning about electronics. No tools required. Many kits are available, each with more or less parts, letting you create 100, 300 or 750 projects. There is a physics kit and other options too.
littleBits (age 8+)
littleBits consists of tiny circuit-boards with specific functions engineered to snap together with magnets. No soldering, no wiring, no programming, just snap together for prototyping, learning and fun. Each bit has a specific function (light, sound, sensors, buttons, thresholds, pulse, motors, etc), and modules snap to make larger circuits. Just as LEGO allows you to create complex structures with very little engineering knowledge, littleBits are small, simple, intuitive, blocks that make creating with sophisticated electronics a matter of snapping small magnets together.
There are several kits available, even a space kit! Newer kits even let you teach programming to your kids. The diversity of projects being created with littleBits is quite astounding.
Elenco Electronic Project Labs & Playgrounds (age 10+)
Elenco’s Electronic Project Playgrounds & Labs are the spiritual successors to Radio Shack’s popular Science Fair kits. A wide selection is available. These are classic electronics trainers for expanding the depths of electronics understanding. They uses the same spring-wire connection methods as Radio Shack’s Science Fair kits (and a breadboard as well) for quick and easy modifications and troubleshooting. With the projects in this kit, learn about transistors, transformers, diodes, capacitors, oscillators, basic electronic circuits, and schematic symbols. Everything you need to build exciting electronics projects including: Delayed Timer, Optical Volume, Digital Light Dimmer, Tone Burst Generator, Audio Signal Tracer, Voice Level Meter, Voltage Drop Alarm, Function Generator, Voltage Control Amplifier and many, many more.
LEGO Mindstorms EV3 (age 10+)
While technically not an electronics kit – it’s actually a robotics kit – I just couldn’t publish this blog post without talking about LEGO Mindstorms. Some kids will actually be more motivated by stuff that moves rather than stuff that blinks. I grew up with LEGO and while a few kits included some basic electrical motor functions (I never got one of these) I really wish we had a robotics kit like this. The LEGO Mindstorms EV3 is the third generation of Mindstorms and was released in 2013. Combining the versatility of the LEGO building system with the most advanced technology ever developed by LEGO, create and command robots that walk, talk, think and do anything you can imagine (assuming you have the proper parts, of course). Follow the step-by-step 3D building instructions to create multiple pre-designed robots and bring them to life with an easy, intuitive and icon-based programming interface. Grab the enclosed remote control and take on challenging ready-made missions or download the free app and command your robot using your smart device. You can also visit LEGO.com/mindstorms to access loads of cool content and interact with a huge online community of other LEGO MINDSTORMS fans – kids and adults alike.
Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer
We’re now starting to enter the big leagues. Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer is an open-source toolkit for building small electronic devices using a wide variety of hardware modules and a powerful programming environment based on the .NET Micro Framework and Visual Studio/Visual C# Express. Even someone with little or no electronics background can build devices made up of components like sensors, lights, switches, displays, communications modules, motor controllers, and much more. Just pick your components, plug them into a mainboard and program the way they work together. .NET Gadgeteer uses the .NET Micro Framework to make writing code for your device as easy as writing a desktop, Web or Windows Phone application.
For educators, .NET Gadgeteer is a great way to excite students about programming, electronics and design. For hobbyists and inventors, bring your ideas to life in hours instead of days or weeks. Develop your inventions easily and show your friends and potential investors. Even professional prototypers can go from concept to test in less than a day. Hardware, software and physical design come together to enable quick assessment of sophisticated concepts. A .NET Gadgeteer system is composed of a mainboard containing an embedded processor and a variety of modules which connect to the mainboard through a simple plug-and-play interface. There are lots of .NET Gadgeteer modules available today, including: display, camera, networking, storage and a variety of sensors and input controls. New modules are being designed all the time!
Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Netduino, etc.
Whether you have older kids or you want to learn electronics for yourself, all roads eventually lead to the Arduino and/or the Raspberry Pi. This is where you step beyond just electronics and into the full Internet of Things.
Arduino can sense the environment by receiving input from a variety of sensors and can affect its surroundings by controlling lights, motors, and other actuators. The microcontroller on the board is programmed using the Arduino programming language and the Arduino development environment. Arduino projects can be stand-alone or they can communicate with software running on a computer. The Netduino is an Arduino-compatible development board by Secret Labs that uses .NET Micro Framework to let you build electronics projects with Visual Studio and C#. Secret Labs also has the Netduino Go which offers a plug & play architecture similar to the .NET Gadgeteer.
The Raspberry Pi completely revolutionized the maker space. The Raspberry Pi is a low cost, credit-card sized computer that plugs into a computer monitor or TV, and uses a standard keyboard and mouse. It is a capable little device that enables people of all ages to explore computing, and to learn how to program in languages like Scratch and Python. It’s capable of doing everything you’d expect a desktop computer to do, from browsing the internet and playing high-definition video, to making spreadsheets, word-processing, and playing games. What’s more, the Raspberry Pi has the ability to interact with the outside world, and has been used in a wide array of digital maker projects, from music machines and parent detectors to weather stations and tweeting birdhouses with infrared cameras.
This world is huge and providing enough details to get started with Arduino or Raspberry is beyond the scope of this post. I’ll be posting more info in future blog entries. Here are a few reference links in the meantime:
What’s your story? Did you learn electronics as a kid? Are you teaching electronics to your kids? Do you have advice for other moms or dads who want to go down this path with their kids? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter at @ActiveNick.
Oh, and remember that 200-in-1 Science Fair kit I never got? I found one on eBay and 30 years later one of my childhood wishes came true. I can’t wait to show my kids in a few years…