Teaching my daughters software and electronic engineering through play

A couple of weeks ago, we were playing cooking. I was sitting in the utility room with DD1 & DD2 (nine and six respectively) playing at preparing food and baking cakes. At the weekend, I was sitting in the home computer/study/office soldering a usb cable to an LED rabbit.



So that I could plug it into a usb charger rather than buying loads of 1.5v lithium batteries (it eats through them and its bloody fiddly changing them). Both of my girls took a real interest at watching Daddy burn his thumb with a soldering iron. It made me think, what is they played pretend engineering rather than pretend baking. They see DW (my wife) and I cooking much more than soldering.

The two of them are pretty au fait with computers, they have both built PC’s with me (although they don’t remember it – I would post a photo or two but privacy is a major concern of mine, so I don’t want people seeing what they look like). They have seen me write software but it look pretty indifferent to children, me typing away in an IDE isn’t that exciting.

Yesterday, we wandered into a charity shop and the two of them were taken by this brightly coloured toy.

It’s called a Funkey, made by Mattel (and others) but discontinued in 2010. I tried to install the software game that goes with it, but somehow my USB DVD player and my PC aren’t playing ball (it must be over three years since I put a disc in). They were happy none-the-less to play with the bright coloured toys vinyls. Later my youngest asked me to cut off the USB “tail” as it was too long.

Rather than just snip it off, I thought open it, cut the cable neatly and later I could solder it back to a usb male A. As I was cutting the wires, I was explaining to DD2 what the different coloured wires did, the back one power negative, the red power positive, the green wire data negative and white one data positive. My first thought was, if I plug it in and use a usb sniffer I could capture the data stream and use it in an application for the girls to play with. It would teach them something about coding.

Looking more at the toy its pretty obvious that the smaller one is a flash storage device as it has a series of metal contacts that match with the magnets on the bigger toy, which in effect is a single port hub. That had a flash of inspiration with me. I’ve been itching to get a Raspberry Pi A+ to do some projects with the girls.

As you can see in the image there are a number of exposed GPIO (general purpose input output) pins available for use. So I coild wire up the hub part of the toy to the pins and as each toy is placed on the hub, use it to trigger some action or other (a glorified switch).

So my first task would be to solder a female USB A socket in place of the male one I cut off. That means the “tail” would be shorter and later I would be able to use either a gpio header connector USB male or make my own with an old USB cable and these pin connectors.

Female Crimp pins

Crimp connector housing

Then I’d be able to connect it easily to the gpio pins or via a breadboard.

BreadBoard kit

From Proto-Pic (my new favourite shop). That would then give me further scope to do additional projects with the girls. There could be no end of fun with this, first using it as a switch to switch on and off LEDs, the expand to other things, maybe start to make other toys interact with it, then trigger something wireless, then trigger the sending of data packets over the wire.

I’ve discovered that the Funkeys are relatively easy to buy and cheap via Amazon, it would be an awesome project for show and tell for my girls at school and make them relaxed and cool about electronics and software.