In my last column, I explained how littleBits, a collection of electronic components that snap together magnetically, scaffold sophisticated electronics concepts for students who are then able to create useful and meaningful circuits and tools.

I was thrilled a couple of weeks ago, when one of my students was creating a basketball game in Little Bits, and he ran into a brick wall. He wanted to detect when a ball went through a hoop using a sensor and change the value displayed on the Number bit, which is a digital, seven-segment display. The problem is that the number displayed on this bit is determined by the voltage in the circuit. The only way to change the number is to manipulate the voltage. Furthermore, he needed the number to increase each time a basket was scored, so he needed his circuit to “remember” what the previous voltage was and increase it based on that value. To do this, he needed a microcontroller.

Thus, littleBits created the opportunity for my student to see first-hand why a microcontroller is important to him and what it is capable of doing. Fortunately, littleBits also sells an Aruduino bit that can magnetically click into place between the sensor on the hoop and the number bit. This bit replaces the traditional rows of header pins with three littleBit magnetic input connections on the left and three output ports on the right.

This is huge. It means that the student who needs to control his or her circuit programmatically is now able to do so without having to strip wires, connect components on breadboards, or deal with the complexity of a circuit design. This level of simplification is just the right amount of scaffolding that a student needs to engage meaningfully in programmable electronics.

Next page: New tool makes microcontroller programming easier