Intro: Make Custom (& Inexpensive) Circuit Blocks!
Create, build, and play with your very own LEGO-inspired circuit blocks! Explore the basics of electricity and circuits, discover how sensors work and use 'em to design your own experiments, and incorporate upcycled materials to improve on your materials-sourcing & MacGuyver-ing skills! That old gum wrapper? Make it into a resistor or a switch!
But seriously, this is a super fun (and inexpensive) project/toy/game to teach electronics to kids (and adults!) of all ages and experience levels. The total cost of this project is under $30 and it takes about 2 hours to design and build.
Step 1: Ok.. So Where Do We Start?
First we need a base, the circuit block itself. This design uses breadboards* as the circuit block bases. I chose mini color breadboards so that each color denotes a specific type of electronic component (see next section). These are super cheap, typically less than $1 per board. Follow my design or create your own!
For each breadboard/component, we also need at least two or more breadboard wires (or 22 or 24 stranded wire), so for 20 breadboards with a single component we need 40 or more breadboard wires.
*Breadboards are non-edible, inexpensive prototyping boards for electronics projects. See photo above for a quick illustration of how breadboards work, or check out this tutorial.
Step 2: Gather Electronic Components!
If you happen to have an assortment of electronic components around, gather them up and go through them to find the most choice pieces -- we want components with only two leads, like simple motors, fans, LEDs, resistors, capacitors, etc. Check out websites like SparkFun or Amazon and search for electronic components.
Hey, wait, where can I get this stuff for free??
Dig up that box of broken electronics in your garage and see what you can find inside the electronics!
The best sources for components are electronic toys that move and/or make noise, speakers, telephones, and other medium-sized electronics.You'll need wire cutters and pliers to remove the pieces, be sure to keep the legs intact so they can easily connect to the breadboard.
Avoid smartphones, tablets and laptops since the circuit components are suuuuper small and difficult to attach to a breadboard (unless that's what you're going for, then extract away!). For safety reasons, avoid appliances (e.g. microwaves, televisions, refrigerators, etc.), and do not use capacitors that are larger than a child's thumb.
Step 3: Build the Circuit Blocks!
The breadboard assortment I got included red, blue, white, green and black, mini breadboards. I broke up the colors into the following categories and components:
Red boards (power devices): One 1 W solar panel, one 9V battery clip, one 2 AA battery box, and two coin cell cases.
Blue boards (simple active): one motor w/ propeller, six LEDs of different colors (three per board), and one transistor (the transistor is pretty tricky -- I'd recommend replacing this with another motor).
Green boards (sensors): one photoresistor, one buzzer/piezoelectric sensor, one peltier junction, and one capacitive sensor (this didn't end up working, so replace it with a pressure sensor or other cool, two-lead sensor).
White boards (simple passive): six resistors of varying values (three per board), two (small electrolytic) capacitors of different values, and one potentiometer.
Black boards (electromechanical): Two pushbutton switches of different sizes/types (one per board), two toggle switches (single board), and one cooling fan.
To build each circuit block:
Connect each component to the first rows of each breadboard (be sure they aren't shorted -- should be on either side of the breadboard), and hot glue the wires into place. Remember to label which side is positive and which side is negative! Another fun option is to make labels for each component.
Step 4: Plug & Play!
You're ready to start building circuits and teaching other people the basics of electronics! Start simple, then add in more components to explore their function and see how they affect your circuit.
Here's an example progression exploring different ways to light up an LED:
1. Use a coin cell to light up an LED.
Exploration questions: Does orientation matter? Where do the wires need to connect to the breadboard?
2. Use the solar panel to light up an LED. Move the panel into the shade (or cover it with your hand), and see how the LED brightness changes.
Exploration questions: How does the brightness of the LED change when you cover the solar panel? Why does this happen?
3. Use a coin cell and potentiometer to adjust the brightness of an LED.
Exploration questions: What do you notice? Does it matter how we connect the potentiometer?
4. Use a coin cell and a photoresistor to adjust the brightness of an LED.
Exploration questions: What do you notice?. Does it matter how we connect the photoresistor? How could we use the photoresistor in an experiment?
Build your own sequences to teach folks about specific circuit components or sensors, or use them as a fun & educational free-time project!