Aug 28, 2016

Switches On! Using Start-Up Circuits for #STEM Learning

"There must be an easier way," I thought to myself as I held my 1-year old to the light switch. He had just figured out how to turn lights on and off and needed to make sure it always worked.

Children learn through play

As a STEM educator, I figured I better let this phase of switches run its course. After all, how long would he need to determine that flipping it up would turn the light on and flipping it down would turn it off? My Montessori colleague reminded me that play is the way kids experiment and figure out the patterns of nature and our designed world. What causes what effect? I, like other parents, dealt with the incessant "spoon-dropping" routine, only to have it replaced by the switch phase. So there I was, holding the tyke to the wall. Hope sprang eternal in me. It couldn't be too much longer to figure this out, right?

And then he discovered the fan switch.

Necessity is the mother of invention

So, my engineering side kicked in. After years of working as a control engineer, I decided the design would not only be mobile but also modular. I was going to give him a bunch of switches to control the light because a mother knows the attention span of a toddler is short.

So I grabbed some MegaBlocks, drilled them out, and wired them up with LEDs, switches, button batteries, and conductive thread. I put the quick-and-dirty prototype in my 1-yr old's hands, and he was quite delighted. Then, he pulled the blocks apart, and lo, the light went out.

The Idea

Then, the magical moment happened in my mind: the STEM educator side butted heads with the engineer side, and the Start-Up Circuits toy was conceived.

available at
I brought the prototype to Mindware, a Minnesota-based toy / game company interested in the STEM market and explained:

As an engineer, I noticed that the best engineers learned concepts when they were young, clocking hours of fidgeting, experimenting, and playing with the technology. Many of these play times were in a pre-verbal stage. Alternatively, the kid engineers learned these patterns on their own (not in a formal lesson) and may never have articulated their observations or models. They just knew--after literally thousands of hours of interacting and observing--what to expect. They knew what was needed to make things work. These experiences ranged from the toys engineers played with as children to chores or hobbies they had.

If we did it right, I told Mindware, this toy could give children some play experiences that could be leveraged in future formal lessons in STEM.

STEM Lesson: A circuit is a circle

From years of teaching my "engineering for everyone" course at St. Catherine University, I realized electricity novices did best if they understood the idea that a circuit is a circle. Specifically, electrical circuits are really circles from the positive end of the battery to the negative. If you break the circle, the device doesn't work. In this toy, that could be done by flipping a switch or by pulling the blocks apart. So much troubleshooting and creative design could be done after understanding this one simple concept.

So the design of Start-Up Circuits includes a red line that runs from the action block to the switch block. I remind my son "Connect red to red" which helps him align the blocks up properly. Then I tack on, "Make a circle. That's a circuit." Now, after 2 weeks of his playing with the toy, pulling it apart, and doing imaginative play, he has queried, "What's a circuit?" Ah, the breadcrumbs of STEM knowledge that we drop in early childhood education!

More STEM lessons

Last Thursday, I brought the toy to the Minnesota State Fair's STEM @ the State Fair day. It was great to see infants, toddlers, and preschoolers engaging with the toy in so many ways. I even saw some playful 13-15-year olds (and some adults) playing with it. Here's what I overheard and why I was happy to hear them:

  • "Look I made a fan": This was a common phrase I heard. It was exciting for folks to put together two blocks and make something work. As the kids played more, they started to see that one switch block and one action block was needed to make something work--the start of systems thinking
  • "How do I turn this on?": Some kids were flummoxed by the slider switch. They kept trying to push it. They just hadn't been exposed to this particular "switch technology" before, so how would they know how to operate it? When I showed them that it slid, they immediately figured out how to turn it off. Believe  it or not, this was the development of spatial understanding.
  • "Red goes to red": The blocks look a little like the original MegaBlocks that I drilled out. But for some kids, it wasn't obvious that the orientation mattered. As they tried to match red to red, they spun, rotated, and turned the pieces to figure out how to assemble the toy. It was another spatial thinking lesson.
  • "Here, try this": This phrase was accompanied by parents putting the toy in their stroller-bound child's hands. I, myself, give the toy to my son in the car seat. He loves the fan, in particular. But he also seems to like the siren--go figure. I had hoped that the portability would help parents keep their little ones occupied when they had to stay in one place for a while. Why is this important? It lets the little ones clock more hours in the tinkering, experimenting, and observing.
  • "My special needs students would love this": I hadn't even thought of this, but a few teachers stopped by and talked about how the toy 1) gave their students with limited motor skills something achievable (and interesting) and 2) didn't look like it was for babies. The STEM lesson was just icing on the cake.
  • "The Party Toy": OK, so this is what my playful IT colleagues said about the toy. The light would be good for concerts, the fan for when it got hot, and the siren (woo-hoo) was for when Business and IT actually agreed on a solution. The lesson to me: STEM folks are often still kids at heart!
  • "Switches on!": The action blocks include a globe light, fan, and a spinning siren. These apparently are great for imaginative play. My now 4-yr old likes to bring them into our bedroom and close the door and "hunt for bugs." I have even caught him holding the light or the siren in the air like Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars poster, shouting "Energon!" (OK, maybe he's playing Transformers, not Star Wars.) Recently, we used them to scare away monsters at night (the light locates them, the siren freezes them, and the fan blows them away). Creativity is important in many fields, including STEM.

After the STEM breadcrumbs are dropped in children's minds, who knows what else the creative kids will do with the toy? One of my son's friends dresses up as a princess and shines the light and the fan on herself. Her mother tells me, "Princesses need to understand circuits, too!" Yes, they do.

Update: Here is a an action video: tweet of Start-Up Circuits

Start-Up Circuits is available online at and and at select Target stores.

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