DIY Electronics Kits Turn Hobbyists Into Engineers

Feb. 22, 2012
SparkFun kits make DIY movement educational and entertaining.

Fig 1. Electronics are not only fun but also relatively easy to learn. Kids age 10 and above can easily pick up useful electronic skills like soldering.

Fig 2. SparkFun’s Simon Says product is a processor-based game built from a kit.

Fig 3. One of SparkFun’s bestselling products is its Inventor’s kit based on the Arduino processor. All parts for multiple projects are provided.

There seems to be a resurgence in the do-it-yourself (DIY) electronics marketplace. While electronics hobbyists have always been around, their numbers come and go with the times. It’s also hard to determine why those numbers are going up lately.

Possible drivers include popular YouTube videos, magazines like Make and its Maker Fairs, a growing interest in robots, and a batch of new kit companies. All of these factors are spreading the word and generating interest in hands-on electronic experimentation.

That’s good news for engineering in general. One of the main sources of engineers is the pool of hobbyists and experimenters. Given today’s shortages, we can always use a few more good new engineers. Start your kids early (Fig. 1).

One of the new companies supporting this renaissance is SparkFun Electronics in Boulder, Colo. Its extensive line of kits and projects is serving the hobby market with more than 1800 products. SparkFun’s main focus is embedded micros and all their related items, but it also offers parts and kits for almost anything electronic. The company’s goal is to help individuals discover their inner inventor and enable them to create their own electronic products.

Among other company initiatives, SparkFun’s annual Free Day has brought it lots of new business. At this year’s promotional event, the company gave away $200,000 worth of credit to 2000 lucky recipients to use at its online retail Web site. These individuals each got $100 for parts, projects, and kits, feeding lots of interest, renewed experimenting, and learning.

SparkFun also focuses on education. The company knows that a huge part of any hobby is learning. Its online video tutorials, books, and kits provide a wide range of educational activities. In addition, SparkFun recently created a department of education led by Lindsay Levkoff. It’s designed to ensure that individuals can get the tools, knowledge, parts, and other resources they need to explore the world of embedded electronics.

“Our hope is that anyone interested in pursuing this exciting field will find the necessary resources and inspiration to play,” Levkoff said.

SparkFun will host workshops on various areas of electronics technology including soldering, wireless, printed-circuit board (PCB) design, and prototyping. The company also plans to partner with schools to foster excitement about electronics and technology in the classroom to help meet the national priority of improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Hands-on experience with kits and projects is a great way to introduce students to a lucrative career in electronics or computer science.

SparkFun’s products include the Simon Says soldering kit and the Arduino Inventor’s kit. New electronics hobbyists quickly discover that they need to learn to solder. The Simon Says kit teaches that skill (Fig. 2). It uses all through-hole components, though another version of the kit is available with surface-mount parts.

With the kit, users can practice soldering a 28-pin microcontroller chip, LEDs, battery clips, and all the other usual components. Once you build it, you can play the game. You also will have a simple development platform for learning embedded controllers. There are five outputs for LEDs and a buzzer and five inputs for buttons and a serial port for debugging. The processor is an ATmega328, which is good for learning how to program Arduino products.

Another immensely popular kit is the Inventor’s Kit for the Arduino processor, which is designed to teach users how to program the processor (Fig. 3). It’s a good initial learning tool for embedded electronics. Projects include blinking LEDs, motor control, servo operation, making music, using the input buttons, implementing volume control, detecting light, reading temperature, and mixing LED colors. All the parts and an instruction manual are supplied.

If you’re looking to educate your own kids or trying to get others interested in a career in electronics, SparkFun products and resources are an excellent starting point.

SparkFun Electronics

About the Author

Lou Frenzel | Technical Contributing Editor

Lou Frenzel is a Contributing Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles and the blog Communique and other online material on the wireless, networking, and communications sectors.  Lou interviews executives and engineers, attends conferences, and researches multiple areas. Lou has been writing in some capacity for ED since 2000.  

Lou has 25+ years experience in the electronics industry as an engineer and manager. He has held VP level positions with Heathkit, McGraw Hill, and has 9 years of college teaching experience. Lou holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland.  He is author of 28 books on computer and electronic subjects and lives in Bulverde, TX with his wife Joan. His website is

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