One tool erases frustration and boredom and makes electronics fun for students

littlebits-stemVery young students often have a hard time engaging meaningfully in electronics projects. Sure, most middle school kids can learn the function of basic electronic components and follow a set of instructions to create a basic circuit on a breadboard. Often, however, their work suffers from the mistakes, short-circuits, and sloppiness that plague any novice.

More limiting than the struggle to keep bare wires from accidentally brushing each other, is the wall that most students hit after they create the alarm circuit or lie detector that they built from the schematic in the textbook.

While their imaginations are ripe with ideas of things they might like to build, most young students lack the fundamental knowledge to push beyond the canned circuits provided by their teacher and to create something original.

By limiting a student to the re-creation of pre-designed circuits, we are teaching her how to pay attention to detail, how to carefully follow instructions, and how to perform a variety of specific tasks such as stripping the insulation from wire and how to install an IC into a breadboard.

If our aspirations for our hypothetical student involve work on an assembly line, this will be all the training she needs. But if we want a little more for our kids, we will need to set the bar higher.

By following instructions to build pre-designed circuits, our student is not learning how to visualize how her idea might operate in the physical world. She isn’t learning how to brainstorm various design ideas, test them out and persist through failure. We are not asking her to create.

(Next page: Kits that challenge students in a fun way)

[Photo by littleBits (littleBits) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]


One could make the argument that the tedium of producing pre-designed circuits is the price of admission to more advanced and interesting topics. We can only begin to create new things after we completely understand the things that have already been created.

There is some truth in this, but the problem is that if we want to begin working with very young kids, it will be a very long time before they gain the knowledge and expertise to truly create meaningful and interesting things. If we are not very careful, we will lose some of our best minds to boredom or frustration. Kids will decide early-on that electronics, engineering, or technology are not for them because they haven’t found a way to create.

There are many solutions to this problem, but an excellent one comes in the form of littleBits—a collection of magnetic blocks that click together to build very sophisticated circuits that interact with the real and virtual worlds.

Each bit is a different type of electronic component ranging from the very simple (a push button), to the high-end (digital logic gates). There are even bits that can connect a student invention to Wi-Fi and others that can be programmed with the Arduino language. The bits are color coded—blue is power, pink is an input such as a motion sensor, and green is an output such as a buzzer. Thus, with only three bits, a student could build a motion-triggered alarm system.

Bits click together magnetically, so it is impossible to put them together incorrectly—no  more guessing to get the polarity right on an LED.

They can make mistakes, but the causes of a mistake are much more limited and easier to troubleshoot than a traditionally designed circuit. For example, on even the simplest breadboarded circuit, a failure could have dozens of possible causes. If a littleBits invention doesn’t work, on the other hand, the complexity of a light sensor is bundled into the simplicity of a magnetic block limiting the possible causes of failure and making the entire circuit much easier to troubleshoot. Students debug their circuit at a much higher conceptual level than they would have to if they had built it from individual components on a breadboard. This empowers even a very young student to engage in meaningful troubleshooting of her invention rather than tossing up her hands in frustration.

The scaffolding provided by littleBits also gives students exposure to highly sophisticated electronic components adding items to their toolbox. This will serve them well when they do eventually get to breadboarding by helping them to imagine what is possible. I push the development of this understanding by requiring them to come to me with a shopping list of each bit that they want. They need to ask for it by name and explain to me what they are using it for in their circuit.

For my money, the most interesting aspect of a student invention, are the things she builds around the littleBits rather than the bits themselves. A student might use a laser pointer to activate a light sensor, connect a pulley made of cardboard to a DC motor, or craft a float switch to detect the water level in a pet’s bowl. These are all ways for students to combine technical knowledge with creativity in a way that helps them really understand that they have the ability to imagine something into existence.

Trevor Shaw has worked as an ed-tech leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and classroom teacher for over 20 years. He is currently the director of technology at the Dwight-Englewood School and can be reached at @shawt, +TrevorShaw, and shawt at d-e.org.