Gear for hacker kids

Twenty-odd years ago, a whole generation of kids grew up tinkering with Commodores, Ataris, and clunky Intel 286s. Back then families shelled out a good chunk of change to participate in The Personal Computer Revolution, hoping to give their kids a head start in the hazy future of computers and electronics. It wasn't all fun and games though. These devices weren't just toys, and they encouraged anyone, adults and kids alike, to delve deeper into their mechanic and electronic underpinnings. For our generation, I hope we also pass on the favour to the kids, to allow them the opportunity to tinker, to think, to come to terms with the future in their own way. Here's the state of the art in exploration, to the delight of kids and adults alike:

For the toddlers, the One Laptop Per Child project's OLPC XO-1 junior convertible tablet takes the crown as the cutest, bubbliest tablet currently not on the market. A few years ago, it was possible to get these laptop/tablets via the Give One Get One program, which donates a device to the developing world for every one purchased. The project has since discontinued this deal, but it's still possible to find these on eBay. However, the best way to get one of these is to participate in the OLPC project itself. The project has loaner models for volunteers, whether as coder, hardware developer, or even evangelist. The hardware itself is fairly hackable, and as the OS is based on Fedora Linux, with large parts of the UI based on Python, it's an easy and early entry point for kids into the wonderful world of UNIX. There is a higher spec "high school" version currently in development: the XO-1.5.

For the curious teen, looking to brag about the biggest, baddest robot on the block, there's the MakerBot:


The MakerBot is a construction kit for the modern age. It's a do-it-yourself, DIY 3D printer. For $950, it allows you to construct objects from models designed on a computer. The base material is ABS plastic, which the MakerBot spits out layer by layer to form the finished product. A video is worth a million words, so here's Bre Pettis, a founder of Makerbot Industries.

Missing a Lego piece? Maybe you can make one yourself. Or perhaps try to refine this experimental Coke and Mentos driven engine. Tons of space for learning and fun here.

For the fledgling adolescent, wanting to know more about why one boy is so different from another, or needing information on coming to terms with family histories of illness, we have the gateway to genetic analysis and biotechnology in the upcoming OpenPCR project. While the science of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is more advanced, the goal remains the same: it's a tool for enlightening and learning about our world. The OpenPCR is a DIY box for replicating DNA, as the first basic step in genetic screening, testing, and analysis. The purpose of the PCR process is to create enough copies of the microscopic DNA from a sample, so that we can visualize it, and use other tools to break it apart or match it for certain patterns. The project is requesting funding at their KickStarter page, which has a good video intro to the process.

Why would kids be interested in this? Because they can use it to prove that they really do hate brussels sprouts, so don't even try making them for dinner.

Of course, the MakerBot and OpenPCR both require plenty of adult supervision, but that's also the point, isn't it?—to spend some quality time with the kids thinking and learning about the world together, outside the influence of ads and TV, away from ready-made toys and the latest gadgets du jour. I'm sure there are many other exciting gear and tools that allow kids to experiment and learn about emerging technologies and sciences. Let me know in the comments if you run into something cool.