Monday, January 06, 2020

Snap Circuits - Adult Level Insights from a Kid's Take on Electronics

I was over at our friend's house playing with their little ones when the kids had busted out a Snap Circuits kit. I quickly became enthralled. My enjoyment was so obvious that the parents turned around and got me my very own Snap Circuits kit for Chanukah. Whoo! (Thanks L&N!)

I've always had an interest in circuit building, but I've never mastered the nuances. I want to make the leap from assembling a circuit to appreciating what each component is doing and why it is selected. Snap Circuits seem to be the Duplo-Blocks of electronics: extra big and chunky, yet perfect for the beginner. Just as you can learn basic building concepts from Duplo, I was curious if I could up my electronics understanding through Snap Circuits.

I've built 36 of the 125 experiments described in the user guide that came with the kit. So the jury is still out as to how big an impact Snap's going to have on my overall understanding of electronics. With that said, I've noted two impressive nuances of the kit that suggest it may be the game changer I'm hoping for.

First off, consider this circuit: (#17, Hi-Low Fan):

There's nothing especially complex about this circuit. Current flows from the battery to a motor in two different ways. If S2 is pressed, the current flows directly to the motor. If S2 is not-pressed the current flows through the lamp and then into the motor. In both cases the motor spins. One key take-away: pressing S2 causes the motor to spin faster. That's because the lamp introduces resistance, and this resistance slows the motor. Pressing S2 bypasses this resistance.

While this is a clever experiment, what struck me as especially interesting is how the kit is using the lamp as a resistor. When I started diving into my Skill Builder Kit one of my first thoughts was: this is fun, but I'm going to need to buy a bigger kit to get more components. It turns out, however, that having fewer components is a Feature not a Bug. Just like in the experiment above, the kit uses all of the components in novel ways.

So far, I've used a lamp as a resistor, a motor, photo resistor and transistor as a switch, a speaker to listen to current, an LED to see sound a paper clip and USB cable as a conductor. I see this as far more than a frugal use of parts. I think this is key to stop seeing electronic components as specific puzzle pieces and start seeing them as general purpose tools.

The other nuance of the kit that I'm thoroughly enjoying is just how easy it is to experiment with minor circuit variations. Take experiments #31 (Transistor Control) through #34 (Murky Motor). They are all variations on this circuit:

That is a transistor, a motor and a lamp. By varying the position of the lamp and motor you can get entirely different results. From my understanding of transistors I would have assumed that in the above circuit the motor would be spinning and the lamp would be lit. In fact, the lamp is lit but the motor doesn't spin. That's because the majority of the current goes through the 3 snap wire and then the lamp. There's enough of a current in the motor's branch to keep the transistor open, but not enough current to get the motor to spin.

These kind of subtle circuit differences are easy to gloss over, yet key for a deeper understanding of electronics.

Because it's trivial to re-snap the circuit in different configurations, you can experiment quite easily. While the user guide often takes you through specific variations of a circuit, it's easy to come up with your own variations.

Of course you can do this with a few dollars worth of electronics and a breadboard. However, Snap Circuits are even easier to work with than a breadboard.

As you can imagine, I'm excited to continue chugging away through all 125 experiments. But I've already had enough Ah-ha! moments to know that Snap Circuits are a winner. If you're willing to supply the curiosity, this kit will do wonders.

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