A Curriculum for Tinkering with Electronics

Tinkering is learning by playing. Tinkering fuels the imagination and catalyses creativity – both essential life skills for the 21st century.

So for my forthcoming workshops in April, I have designed, no curated, a Tinkering with Electronics curriculum. Curated, because I have taken project ideas from MIT Media Labs, San Francisco Exploratorium, Toys from Trash, Science Buddies, Instructables and many other sources.

Over three weeks I will be interacting with primary, middle and senior school students in rural schools in India. Grades 4 and 5 students will start Tinkering with Electronics by building BristleBots and ArtBots – simple toys, built with a vibrator motor, that dance around and can make attractive squiggly patterns. They will also learn how to use conducting dough to create 3D shapes and light these shapes up with LEDs.

Grades 6 to 8 students will learn the basics of electronics and circuits by playing with the Component Tiles (wooden blocks with different types of components mounted on them like bulbs, DC motors, LED, switches and buzzers). These students will also design Paper Circuits – interactive cards made with copper tape, LEDs and coin cells. They will then build four types of robots – a line tracking bot, a light sensing bot, a motion sensing bot and an obstacle avoiding bot, all four without using a microcontroller (a programmable chip). My plan is to also introduce them to coding using Scratch, MIT Media Lab’s free GUI programming tool that has become hugely popular.

Senior school students will learn about advance circuits using breadboards and they will build three types of robots based on the Arduino microcontroller – an obstacle-avoiding robot using an ultrasonic sensor, a line-following robot using IR sensor and a gesture-controlled robot using an accelerometer. They will also learn how to programme these robots. If time permits, we might even try an IoT (Internet of Things) project.

The idea is to start Tinkering Clubs in these rural schools that ignite students’ interest in science and technology. I have observed that even in rural schools the pressure of completing the curriculum and preparing students for examinations is very high and any non-exam related activity seems like a digression from the main agenda. Hence, 21st-century life skills, like tinkering, are best introduced as the second strand in the DNA of education, the first strand being prescribed-syllabus focused education. Such an approach, I find, creates least friction to new ideas.

Creating and equipping such Tinkering with Electronics clubs is not very difficult and also not a very expensive proposition. Many online vendors in India now offer components required for tinkering and a club offering several electronics and robotics projects can be started with a budget of Rs 20,000 (£200) odd.

But there are challenges.

Finding a person who is excited about running such a club is one challenge. For many teachers, such activities like clubs are added burden with no monetary payoff. Some teachers still have the ‘sage-on-the-stage’ mindset and for them leaping into areas where they lack formal training is daunting. Still I am hopeful that we will be able to find mentors who are excited about starting such clubs with not a ‘know-it-all’ but a ‘co-explorer’ spirit. These mentors could be teachers, senior students, or local youth – someone who has the tinkerer spirit in abundance.

Another challenge is easy access to related knowledge so that when students are learning informally and in a self-directed fashion, they can course correct themselves by referring to myriad learning resources. Good news here is that there is no dearth of online guidance and information on such topics. Slightly bad news, especially for rural Indian schools, is that much of these online resources are in English. To the extent possible I plan to help club members by creating relevant web-based learning resources in Hindi and providing guidance through Whats App groups (something that I have been doing for the last couple of years).

In April, I will be accompanied by Mehul, a class 11 student from Delhi and my son Manan, a class 9 student. Following the Tinkering with Electronics curriculum, they will both be conducting their own workshops. I am hopeful that they will return charged-up and will continue contributing by adding learning resources (videos, tutorials etc) to the planned digital learning resources repository for the tinkering clubs.

I recently came across the word ‘Libratory’ – combination of laboratory and library and I think this captures the spirit of a tinkering club – a Laboratory 2.0 that focuses on emerging areas like sensors, robotics, internet of things, 3D, virtual reality… backed by digital access to online learning resources or a Library 2.0.

This combination, offered in the form of clubs, as opposed to exam-focused learning, could be the right form factor for imparting 21st-century life skills and igniting in students a passion for science.