Forget about expensive weather stations for teaching about the environment and meteorology because AcuRite’s 1057 kit can do it for less. The $160 set includes the sensing gear, an LCD receiving screen as well as the ability to remotely log in from a PC, Android or iOS device. The wireless sensing package is self-contained, solar-powered and can connect at up to 300-feet. In addition to rainfall, wind direction and barometric pressure, it measures and records temperature and humidity. You can easily share your readings with Weather Underground’s network of amateur meteorologists.
When it’s time to teach a physics class about electronics, the soldering irons, alligator clips, resistors, capacitors and wires usually come out of drawers. That dynamic can be changed for the better with littleBits with an innovative set of discreet electronic modules that snap together to make all kinds of things from lights that turn on when you clap to a pressure switch that starts a fan.
An ingenious approach to teaching about electronics, littleBits is based on self-standing functional electronic modules that do a specific thing. They are color coded for power (blue), input (red), wires (orange) and output (green), but the key breakthrough is that the modules have magnets at their ends that draw them together, creating a circuit. In fact, the modules are so well designed that if you try to use one backwards, the magnets repel each other, making it impossible to make a mistake.
Education is front and center with littleBits. In addition to the $99 Base Kit, there's the $149 Premium Kit I used, which includes enough modules for up to three students to make a bunch of projects. There’s also the 24-part $233 Student Set that’s good for small groups as well as the $999 100-module Workshop version and comes in a plastic case and is perfect for a full class. Finally, littleBits sells the $3,299 Pro Library with 100 modules packaged in a wall storage unit that’s more than enough for an afterschool activity or club. You can get the littleBits kits online or at Radio Shack stores
The included booklet provides nice descriptions of the modules along with their color coding and a photo with what looks like hand-written explanations of its purpose. Each module has its circuit diagram printed on the board and you can use them on a desk or attach them to a board that costs $15.
The booklet has a dozen projects with step-by-step directions for things like creating a back massager and drawer mounted burglar alarm. My favorite is involves using the LED lights as eyeballs for a haunted Halloween mask.
While the projects are fun, the real learning happens when you throw the book away and get kids to think independently to create their own projects from the modules and whatever might be lying around the classroom. For instance, I animated a small Teddy Bear by putting the vibration motor underneath its arms along with the pulse generator and topped it off with the sound level trigger that makes the stuffed bear moves when you talk to it. All told, 5 minutes to think-through, 10-minutes to make and less than that to take apart for the next project.
There’re several videos of how to make projects as well as 50 lesson plans and a workshop guide. It, however, falls short of a teacher’s ideal because there’re no measurement modules, for things like voltage, resistance or current that could help make littleBits part of a physics lab. I was able to sneak in a multimeter’s probes but the connections are a tight fit.
A USB module with simple measurement software for a tablet or notebook would have been a great addition to the kit. littleBits does sell an Arduino-based control module and a software development kit, so this could be the class’s next project.
+ Snap-together electronic modules
+ Wide assortment of parts
+ Project videos
+ Quick to make and take apart projects
- Lacks module for meters
If you like Netatmo’s minimalist weather station, you’ll love the device’s add-on rain gauge. The small unobtrusive device costs $79 and immediately lets you know that it’s started to rain. Like the temperature and humidity gauge, it connects to the base station wirelessly. Inside is a tipping bucket that empties itself every 24 hours so that you get accurate daily rain-level readings. The device requires a pair of AAA batteries and is accurate to within 1 millimeter an hour.