Play for Tomorrow: STEM Toys Help Early-Stage Development of Future Engineers

Author : Mike Green - Editor, EPDT

22 December 2023

The littleBits Code Kit from Sphero
The littleBits Code Kit from Sphero

With the holiday season about to begin, I thought this was an ideal opportunity to look at some of the toys currently on the market that can help inspire future engineers. Here are just a few of the multitude of products that are successfully igniting young minds' imagination and creativity - enabling them to gain some essential skills and become more engineering aware.

Already widely popular, the Sphero littleBits Code Kit is targeted at ages starting from just 3 and going through to 11. It provides users with a series of component building blocks (including servo motors, push buttons, speakers, pressure sensors, LED matrices, slider switches, sound triggers, fans, audio speakers, etc.), along with an intuitive app. All the components are coloured to signify whether they relate to an input, output, power or interconnection function. They snap together through use of polarised magnets, with the possibility of components being attached incorrectly thereby prevented. Via the app, various different lessons and projects may be accessed. These steadily get more sophisticated as the user progresses. There are helpful tutorial videos available too.   

Working on a similar principle is Elenco’s Snap Circuits Jnr electronics exploration compendium. Aimed at the 8 and above age bracket, this consists of a series of projects (+100 in total) to help children learn the essential elements of circuit design. Projects including building a rudimentary alarm system, a musical doorbell and a 2-speed fan through to a flying saucer. A detailed guide (with helpful illustrations) provides all the necessary support. The 30 constituent component parts are mounted on plastic modules that can then be placed onto a breadboard-like base (without the need for any tools). 

Getting domesticated 
With home automation now gaining greater traction, it is no surprise that this is a source of inspiration for STEM toys too. Based on the Arduino platform, the KEYESTUDIO Smart Home Starter Kit is a great example. It comprises 13 different smart home projects for teens to work on. Amongst these are the implementation and configuring of a PIR motion sensing subsystem for security purposes, a fan module for climate control, servo motor arrangements for the opening/closing of doors/windows, etc. 

The KEYESTUDIO Smart Home Starter Kit
The KEYESTUDIO Smart Home Starter Kit

Robot-oriented options
As you would expect, robotics is also a common focus for STEM-based toys, since this offers a very effective basis for technological interaction. The Makeblock mBot relies on the education-optimised CyberPi microcontroller unit (MCU), which is mounted onto a shield with servo outputs and encoder ports. Predominantly intended for 8 to 12 age group, it provides the opportunity for kids to hone their mechanical engineering and coding adeptness. It facilitates the construction and subsequent programming of a mobile robot. Once completed, this unit is capable of negotiating its way around obstacles. So that extra functionality can be incorporated, an add-on pack has now been introduced. This comprises light sensors/emitters, audio elements and suchlike. 

Robots that have some degree of biomimicry are certainly a valid route for toy makers to take - as products that emulate the attributes associated with specific animal species seem to successfully garner children’s fascination. DFRobot is among the companies to embrace this. Particularly well known for numerous drone products, it also markets the Hexa Insectbot. This 6-legged walking robot is capable of traversing uneven ground. Leveraging Arduino Uno hardware, it is powered by 4x AAA batteries and features Bluetooth 4.0 wireless connectivity plus infra-red ranging. Programming (using Ardublock, Mind+ or Arduino IDE) is simple to carry out through connecting the controller hardware to a laptop via a USB connection. 

Another example is the Adeept Quadruped Spider Robot. At the heart of this formidable-looking mechanised arachnid is a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B+ unit (sold separately). Through PYTHON sample code, object recognition, position tracking and motion detection functions may be implemented. This can be done by use of the PYTHON graphic user interface (GUI) that accompanies it. The robot is able to stabilise itself by utilising a MPU6050 gyro sensor. It also has an ultrasonic range sensor, an IR remote control unit and a Wi-Fi module.

Adafruit’s popular Circuit Playground board
Adafruit’s popular Circuit Playground board

Focusing on anthropological rather than animal life, the Thames & Kosmos Cyborg Hand relies on hydraulic pistons to enable movement. Through working with it, users can discover more about the complexities of bodily movement. The component parts emulate the muscles, nerves and sinews found within human hands. Having put together the +200-piece kit (with step-by-step guidance being given), children can then get this 4-digit robotic assembly to pick up items or engage with people around it.

Project building from the ground up
Superseding its Mindstorms brand, LEGO SPIKE has become the education branch of the Danish-headquartered construction-focused toy company. Its flagship SPIKE Prime Set is a useful resource for kids looking to bring their ideas to life or address real-world problems. Not only does this supply them with the bricks they need, but also sensors, motors, a light emitter matrix, a hub with an array of inputs/outputs, plus an operationally instinctive associated app too. Via the set, they can build and then test their prototypes, as well as having initial attempts at coding - using a Scratch-based programming language that works through a drag-and-drop methodology (but with provision for PYTHON-based efforts also catered for). 

Since its release in mid-2016, the BBC micro:bit mini-computer has played a role in the education of over 30 million children around the globe. Relying on a 64MHz Arm Cortex M4 processor, it is equally applicable in the classroom and at home. Part of the offering is the micro:bit Go bundle, which covers everything needed to get started on the formation, programming and debugging of a multitude of different projects. The purchasing of additional accessories allows drones, buggies, weather stations, robots, basic vital signs monitors, piano keyboards and digital signage systems to be created.

The Arduino Sensor Kit from Seeed Studio
The Arduino Sensor Kit from Seeed Studio

Another stalwart, which has likewise been available for nearly 8 years, Adafruit’s Circuit Playground has gained widespread praise. This is a versatile platform for teens (and possibly even pre-teens) to experiment with. Powered by USB or a AAA battery reserve, this circular board with alligator clip pads situated around its circumference possesses 10 mini NeoPixels emitters (each capable of rendering a wide range of colours). Complementing them are a MEMS microphone, a 3-axis accelerometer, a thermistor device for temperature measurement, a phototransistor for light detection and a magnetic buzzer. It is based on an 8-bit AVR RISC-based MCU from Microchip, with a 32kByte flash program memory. This multifaceted item of hardware has the capacity to generate a kaleidoscope, produce animated lighting or serve as a visual communicator. It can also form the basis of wearable equipment, musical instruments and gaming controllers. 

Introduced in late 2020, in collaboration with Arduino, Seeed Studio’s Arduino Sensor Kit provides a plug-and-play solution for kids to learn about the sensing of different environmental and mechanical parameters. This acts as expansion hardware for the Arduino Uno. Packed onto a single PCB board, it boasts various commonly employed sensor modules (for determining pressure, temperature, humidity and movement, plus light levels), along with an OLED display, buzzer, rotary potentiometer, etc. There is no need for a breadboard and wiring, or for soldering work to be done - everything is directly accessible. If more functionality is desired, additional Seeed Studio Grove modules can be added. A collection of tutorials is provided for users to navigate their way through, with the goal that a grasp of different facets of electronics endeavour can be built up over time. 

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