How do we enable young makers, without hiding the details of how things really work?

Michael Rosenblatt is founder and CEO of Seamless Toy Company, maker of ATOMS, an electronics construction kit for kids (and adults). He wrote a piece for MAKE about the challenges of making an easy-to-use electronics kit that doesn't hide how electronics works.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a great team to design a new electronics construction set called ATOMS. The design goal for ATOMS was to create a plug-and-play construction set that required no experience in electronics or programming. We designed ATOMS to be simple enough for a 5-year-old, and powerful enough for a professional — which means that making table-top creations isn’t enough. You have to be able to build “real” things with it — like a cake with motorized elements, or a nightlight that you can switch remotely with a the shake of a “magic” wand. We designed ATOMS to enable more people to make great things, and particularly with kids, we hope ATOMS will seed a curiosity for how things work.

However, there is an inherent contradiction in these goals — tools that help users extend their capabilities almost always abstract away the true nature of how things work. ATOMS is no exception, and that leads to a number of design decisions we struggle with on a regular basis. We want ATOMS to both empower users, but also be transparent, and oftentimes those objectives are at odds.

How do we enable young makers, without hiding the details of how things really work?


  1. I learned by taking things apart. I wrecked telephones and tape recorders and all kinds of stuff. And then eventually I figured out how to put them back together after.

    Take your kid to the dump. Pop the back off a television set. Fix a sink. Maybe this is just the rural version of learning, though…

    1. When I was in the first grade I got sent back to the class room as punishment for something, while I was hanging out there alone I took the tube radio apart. I don’t remember what I was was being punished for but I remember taking the radio apart.

    2. “Pop the  back off of a television set.”

      And find that one big capacitor that will shock the hell out of you.

      Good times…

  2. It has gotten a lot harder to work on electronic stuff these days, what with all the grain-of-salt sized components. But there’s plenty of old stuff out there with parts that you can see. Grab some electronics from the eighties at yard sales.

    1. You know, it was ever thus.

      Once upon a time, the TRUE makers went out and mined their own ore and made their own refined metals. Then that became passe, and the TRUE makers took already refined metals and made their own bi-metalic strips or pure pewter goblets. Then, when casting became passe, the TRUE makes got into casting alloys and forging cool shapes. Then that gimp Marconi came along, and after him apparently the only TRUE makers where those who grew their own crystals to make their own shortwave radios. But, oh no, Shockley was too good to grow crystals, so he made a transistor, the splitter. Then refining and casting was completely out the window, and suddenly the TRUE makers were only interested in copper and silicon. Pfft. Like /that/ would ever change the world. But the futurists would never look back, so suddenly even copper and silicon where old hat and the TRUE young-un makers would only talk about electrons, and controlling them with some black magic called programming! Supposedly they could control the flow of /electrons/ to make them create moving piktchas, or steery-oh sounds, and all sorts of other black magic. And the young-uns, those TRUE makers of today, then found they could disassemble /those/ sounds and pictures, and re-assemble them to create completely different pictures, or even no picture at all! Apparently it just depended on exactly what those TRUE makers wanted those electrons to do. And now the TRUE makers are taking each other’s programs apart, and re-building them to accomplish different tasks.

      But that’s just crazy talk. Hey! You kids! Git offa my lawn! I’ve got some iron sands I need to smelt down!

        1.  No. In otherwords, don’t worry about the microscope because electronics is a given. Get them a compiler and teach them how to programme.

          Or, do get them a microscope, if that’s what they’re interested in.

          On get them a bunsen burner and a crucible, if THAT’s what they’re interested in.

          Or, you know, get them some old school human-sized electronic components if THAT’s what they – or more likely you – are in to.

          But you don’t HAVE to teach them anything about electronics. Electronics are a disposable commodity, like metals or radios. Fun to make, but not fundamental.

          1.  “Electronics are a disposable commodity, like metals or radios.”

            If anything is a disposable commodity these days, it’s code.

          2.  I disagree.  Setting up an arduino project requires at least a little knowledge of basic analog circuits, and honestly I don’t think there’s any better way to learn about wave mechanics and the frequency domain than electronics.  At the very least one should be able to read a circuit diagram and be able to puzzle out most of what’s going on which requires knowing more or less exactly what capacitors and resistors do and having a pretty good idea about what basic transistor circuits do. 

            Electronics is very different from programming: they’re two distinct skills.  Coding ability is not sufficient for hardware hacking.

  3. I was into tape recorders when they were big clunky things. I taught myself how to change the heads and align them and also replace various mechanical parts. Used my savings to buy my first soldering iron. I’d suggest giving a kid an Edmund Scientific catalog to see if it starts the juices flowing

  4. There’s tons of value in the layers of abstraction that we’ve built up on top of lower-level technology, and they are just as magical. Let the kids fall in love with the abstractions and they’ll dig deeper as their interest dictates. There’s really not a problem here.

    1. Well the problem comes when the easy bake world of plug and play has to give way to the very cold technical world of engineering, math, and electronics.  The obvious goal is to help ease them through that transition period in any way you know how.

      It’s easy to say a transistor can be used as an amplifier.  It’s not really hard to build a circuit that does just that.  It’s much harder to equate the physical properties of the transistor used to the overall gain of the amplifier.  And it still takes another level of understanding to realize how things would need to change in order to support a different transistor.

      1. I don’t see much of a problem here.  Most engineers never really spend much time with physical models of transistors;many never spend any.  This isn’t a bad thing. 

        Once people have an interest they’ll gravitate to the level of abstraction that they feel comfortable with.  And that is great. We don’t need everyone on the bottom level to have a world full of productive, creative makers,  In fact, a distrust of abstraction can often be a major impediment to productivity.

      2. I definitely agree. I think we’re living in a time where access to information is as easy to get as it has ever been. The important thing is showing kids how to connect with that information and encouraging their interests.

        The world of engineering and math really doesn’t need to be “very cold.” It’s definitely technical but it is also the realm of pushing boundaries and imagining incredible things. That’s the part that hooks young minds.

    2. Absolutely. All learning of complex topics begins with simplified models. You then move on to deeper models. Technology is not even special in this regard.

  5. I (santa) bought my six year old daughter this for Chirstmas: I’m fairly confident she and I will enjoy hours of building circuits and making things work.

  6. I was home visiting my parents last week, and it was fun to be comfortable opening up both a CD changer and a DVD player to fix them.The principles I learned 25 years ago are still true, and they saved who know how much money by not taking them to a repair shop.

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