Sunday, January 3, 2016

littleBits! Tools for Nature-Inspired Tinkering

On Christmas morning, we broke out the littleBits (aff link), one of the presents the kids received from us. I explain at the end how we got a better deal, though they did go up as the deal of the day at Amazon at 40% off one day. Check out this video to see some of the options! Here is the littleBits site, as well as a TED talk on the product. 

Each set comes with a box with trays for each of the components. This is the Premium set. Our six-year-old wants to build robots so this is a good way to get started on this path to whet the appetite at his age. They suggest these for a little older (8 and up) but I found that he does fine with them. There is a battery included, though you can also buy a cord that connects to a power source like a portable cell phone charger. That was helpful! While a basic set will get you started, the Premium or Gizmos and Gadgets sets will give you more options. 

Everyone was trying out different combination and circuits. We hadn't used them too much, so were still exploring options. 

Our oldest is a little more rigid in what he likes to do at times, so didn't want to "explore" with the littleBits until I found a project that let him make a prank hand buzzer in the instruction book. Then he was hooked! 

We continued working and trying options, with my oldest working on his hand buzzer. We found some  first aid tape from my husband's every day pack to help hold his creation to his arm. 

Then he went to prank his unsuspecting cousin. The look in his face says it was a success! These can be taken apart and rebuilt in many numerous ways. The idea books that come with the sets include about 10 starter options each. There are many videos and blog posts online to try other options. However, what I like most about these are the "loose part" component that can be combined with cardboard, Legos, and other creations for limitless options! They are VERY easy to use with magnets forcing the components to go together in the right direction. Each piece is color coded for power (blue), input (pink, like sensors, buttons, sliders, keyboard, etc.), wires (orange, like connectors, splitters, usb connectors, etc.), green (outputs, like speakers, lights, motors, etc.), making it easy to put a creation together from the start. 

The biggest drawback to littleBits is definitely the price. They are expensive. I'm glad we found some deals on them. I suggest watching and waiting for 25-40% off at least as these really add up. There are also various components you can buy a la carte. My husband bought several extra parts that he thought would enhance our experience. My husband and I are both educators, so we took advantage of special promotions and the educator discount to get these sets. Unfortunately, in 2016, the educator's discount is only 5%. 

While they are expensive, there are ways of having similar experiences less expensively. At the Thinkery museum in Austin, we found these electronic components mounted to blocks with easy to use  connectors like alligator clips. Buying motors, wires, battery holders, lights, etc. and mounting them to blocks like this (or just using them without the blocks) could be a less expensive option. However, our kids liked that they could make "wearable" options with the littleBits like a super hero cuff or the prank hand buzzer above. I'm sure we will explore both options! I always loved the electricity component when I taught 4th grade--fun! These fit right in with our current "tinkering" theme! 

Of course, I always need to connect things to nature on a nature log. These are a great loose part. They help us understand how humans have harnessed the flow of electricity which we could only witness in lightening, static electricity, magnetism, our normal electrical currents, and some deep sea fish previously. They also allow inquiry and STEAM based learning, which nature is a part of. I love that they promote TINKERING, which is a focus we are working on this year as a family. We've always enjoyed the creativity oozing after going to a Maker Faire. We're also looking at nature as our inspiration for some of our inventions and creations--watch for a local program on the topic soon! Biomimicry is the science of using nature as the basis for human solutions to problems. Examples might be velcro (burdock seeds), the shinkansen (fast bullet train patterned after the kingfisher bird), and "self-cleaning" paint that encourages the rain to bring down the dirt as it rolls down the outside wall. We'll look to nature for inspiration as we tinker! Plus, they're just cool and I wanted to share something with you that our family finds cool. I like making outside of the box connections to nature!

Below are a few littleBits options (affiliate link). I will link to additional related electronic "loose parts" when we start experimenting more!