Electronic Design

A Gift Of Hobby Electronics Inspires Future Engineers

I got an e-mail recently from Forrest Mims, author of most of Radio Shack's electronics project books—over 7.5 million served! Despite those bestseller-like figures, Mims reports that the hobby electronics market is so slow that Radio Shack has dropped all of its electronics project books. He is concerned that the ranks of electronics hobbyists, many of whom become electrical engineers, are fast disappearing. "Electronics training is in trouble in the U.S., and hobby electronics is in a free fall," he says.

Knowing that many of you readers are hobbyists turned pros, and often still hobbyists at heart, I'm wondering about how you can use your last few days of holiday shopping to help inspire another generation to do more with electronics than maneuver a joystick. What should you get the kids—or adults—left on your list? Here are some ideas for old and new electronic hobbyists alike.

While Radio Shack has pulled project books off the shelves, the retailer is still selling Mims' hobby electronics kits and is even test-marketing his latest creation, the Sun and Sky Monitoring Station. The kit incorporates a do-it-yourself course on sun photometry and radiometry and also teaches the basics of op amps and LEDs via station assembly.

Radio Shack continues to sell Mims' Electronic Sensors Lab and his Electronics Learning Lab, which details over 200 projects and includes two 96-page manuals—the Trojan horse approach to keeping the hobbyist books on the Radio Shack shelves!

"Bob Pease has one of these kits," Mims says. Now that's the real seal of approval in this market! Mims uses the kit to teach electronics basics to international humanities majors at the University of the Nations in Hawaii. "Though initially terrified of electronics, in only five minutes, they have built their first working circuit," Mims says. "I wish you could see the smiles and hear the comments!"

Hank Wallace, an Electronic Design reader and president of Atlantic Quality Design Inc., is also concerned about a shortage of hobbyists. "Have you noticed that there are no tinkerers any more? Used to be that someone in electronics did electronics from morning to night, as a hobby and a profession," he wrote in a letter responding to my editorial on designers needing to find a niche in the global marketplace. "I talk to engineers who have never dissected a TV, never built a radio, and don't even own an old Tek scope or meter." While agreeing that EEs need to "move up the food chain," Wallace also felt that many EEs are too defined by their niche. Those who don't "tinker" may be too narrowly focused to truly innovate, he says. Read his full letter at www.elecdesign.com under the Reader Comments for this column.

While concerns of a dearth of new engineering talent may have lessened during the tech bust of the last couple of years, the recovering economy will focus on the need for more U.S. students to enter electronic engineering. A General Accounting Office report last year found that NASA is having trouble finding candidates with the science and engineering skills required for its operations. The report also noted that NASA has three times as many engineers age 60 and older than it does 30 and under. In other words, a quarter of the agency's 20,000 employees are ready to retire within five years.

In response, NASA has funded an array of educational programs from elementary school science programs to sending student experiments into space. But perhaps the best emissary for promoting electronics is its star robot, the Sojourner Rover. See for yourself in Bill Wong's "A Complex Task: Real And Imaginary Robots Honored" on page 27, this issue.

If there's one hands-on engineering project drawing in ranks of youngsters today, it's robots. Robot challenges, like battles and races, are a hot draw, sponsored by companies ranging from National Instruments to Lego. And these events are proving to be just the ticket to spark kids' interest in electronics.

The Comedy Central TV show BattleBots has brought tremendous publicity to the build-your-own robot movement (www.battlebots.com). The show has inspired a High School Robots National Championship within a BattleBots IQ educational program.

Beyond BattleBot starter kits, there are kits for "Sumo-style" robot battlers, kits for racing and soccer playing robots, and more. The home page at hobbyengineering.com includes the All Terrain Robot from Rogue Robotics, the mini-sumo Sumovore from Solarbotics, and the "Toddler" walking robots from Parallax Robots, a company that has developed an extensive robotics curriculum taught in high schools and colleges around the world.

Having fun with robots is great inspiration for tomorrow's engineers. Ask Ayanna Howard, a 30-year-old robotics research engineer recognized by MIT as one of 2003's TR100 Top 100 innovators. While Dr. Howard told attendees of MIT's Emerging Technologies Conference her inspiration was TV's The Bionic Woman, she held on to her childhood dream of creating robots and is now principal investigator of the Safe Rover program, enabling planetary rovers to traverse long distances on challenging terrain.

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