Revelstoke mechatronics: Problem solving through play

Jason Zimmer teaching kids about mechatronics using littleBits.

  • Mar. 24, 2017 11:00 a.m.
Instructor Jason Zimmer (right) works with student Nyssa Thomas on her littleBits project.

Instructor Jason Zimmer (right) works with student Nyssa Thomas on her littleBits project.

By Karilyn Kempton, Revelstoke Tech Coordinator

Jason Zimmer laughingly admits that one of the reasons for starting the Revelstoke Mechatronics club was so that he could purchase a big set of littleBits electronics that his young children could use.

“It first started with questioning how can I get this technology into my kids’ lives?” he told me. “And now I’m having so much fun with kids in the after school mechatronics sessions that it’s really snowballing.”

Mechatronics combines electronics and mechanical engineering to create inventions and moving objects. Zimmer’s hands-on Revelstoke mechatronics program helps students develop an understanding of the principles of electronics and mechanical engineering using littleBits electronic building blocks.

So what exactly are littleBits? They are kits of modular electronics that snap together easily with magnets to allow for prototyping and invention. Each bit has a specific function (like light, sound, button or sensor), and kids have a blast creating projects like catapults, conveyor belts, timers, cars, games, rockets and more.

Zimmer ran two eight-week courses this year, one in fall and another in winter. “I wasn’t sure about the reception and it was awesome,” he grins, noting each course filled up immediately and there are currently kids on the waitlist for the next ones in the fall.

He’s planning to switch to six-week courses rather than eight in order to hold more of them and introduce more kids to the concepts. Previous attendees are clamouring for an advanced course, which he’s hoping to run in the fall for students. Courses will be promoted through the city’s leisure guide, so watch for registration notice in the summer and watch the Revelstoke Mechatronics Facebook page.

The most important thing kids get from this kind of play is real world problem solving, says Zimmer. “They figure out why things work, not just that they work.”

He watches kids solve their own problems and work on improving their inventions. “They build something, then it doesn’t work, and they try again.”

He also believes it offers valuable hands-on learning. He says kids are often a bit hesitant to jump right in and look to him for a lot of help at first, but he encourages them to just start building and see what happens. Not surprisingly, he finds teaching the courses fun and rewarding.

“I really like playing with the electronics,” he laughs, “and it’s cool to see kids come out with so much from it.”

A utilities electrician and SCADA technician for the City of Revelstoke, he’s no stranger to programming and electrical tinkering. However, when it came to creating a course he says, “I needed to learn to teach it, because I’m not a teacher.”

He found tremendous support online through the littleBits education tools resources, and realized “there’s a whole community of making with the littleBits.” He also practices specific inventions at home before bringing them to the group, as he usually starts a session by having everyone create the same thing before moving onto projects of their own choosing.

Zimmer viewed the initial investment as a way create a community resource. “These electronics are fairly new, and they’re really expensive,” says Zimmer. He plans to use registration funds to purchase more tools and advanced bits and continue building the library.

Zimmer loves using the littleBits with his young children. “We play with this at home and it’s just awesome,” he grins, noting that neighbourhood mechatronics play sessions are a regular occurrence: “It’s kind of a weekend thing we do now.”

Attendee Nyssa Thomas got a set of littleBits for Christmas, so she was thrilled at the opportunity to play with a much bigger set in the course and build more things. Her favourite thing she built was a mini version of R2D2.

“It’s pretty easy to learn,” she says, and she feels like she’s gotten a lot better at problem solving throughout the process. “You get to build lots of things.”

She thinks it’s especially valuable “for people who don’t have littleBits at home.” She wants to be a mechanical engineer when she grows up, and thinks that exploration like this helps her along that path.

Bence Berkenbosch was wrapping up making a crane when we spoke. Throughout the course he says he’s learned by trying, and had never used littleBits before. “Over the past few sessions I’ve been building circuits similar to this, and then it just becomes so that I know what to do to make something like this.” He hopes to learn new skills in an advanced session. “I like building things. I want to get some littleBits for myself so I can do stuff at home.” He’d definitely recommend the course it to other kids, “because it’s awesome!”

Zimmer is also hoping to hold a day-long workshop before the summer for parents/guardians and kids so that enthusiastic adults can get involved and exposed to the concepts in order to help participate in their kids’ learning. He’s going to buy a robotic arm and have attendees use micro controllers and do some programming on their laptops, and then take what they learned home.

“I think it will be neat to get the parents involved. Parents might not just sit down and learn this stuff on their own, so in a group setting it can make it easier,” he said.

In other mechatronics news, Okanagan Regional Library recently bought a STEAM student set and two basic kits to share among the 29 branches, and the Revelstoke branch will be holding bi-weekly mechatronics meet-ups in the library, says librarian Kendra Runnalls.

Like all library programming, the program will be free. Runnalls is expecting graduates of Zimmer’s courses like Nyssa and Bence to help out. Keep an eye on the library’s Facebook page for more information.

Karilyn Kempton is the City of Revelstoke’s technology strategy coordinator. She will be writing a series of articles about technology in Revelstoke for the Review.