Very basic electronics kits for 2 year olds!?

My 2 year old daughter appears to enjoy the very basic geeky things that she's gotten her hands on so far.  Things like plugging headphones into the iPad to listen to music; building things with large Lego blocks; turning torches on and off; playing with little remote-controlled-cars etc etc.

I'd like to see how she gets on with some sort of basic "electronics kit" which allows her to experiment a little while teaching her some very basic principals (like circuits require both a power source and a load).

All existing electronics kits I've seen would be way to advanced for her.  For example, she's years away from being able to understand what "completing a circuit" means (i.e. any kits which require you to connect both a negative and positive cable from power source to actuator would be way to abstract for her).

I'm thinking of making her a very, very basic "electronics kit".  Each component would be in its own little tinted, semi-transparent box. 

There would be several "sources" of electrical power (small battery pack, PV cells, little hand-cranked dynamo etc).  Each source module would have a single large DC socket to send power to another module. Each source would produce about 3 volts and would have short-circuit protection.

There would be several "actuator" modules like a lamp, motor, door bell, volt meter, radio etc.  These modules would each have a single small DC socket.

Cables would have a large DC socket on one end and a small DC socket on the other.  The use of large DC sockets on the power source modules and small DC sockets on the actuator modules should make it mechanically impossible to create a "wrong" circuit (like connecting a battery pack to a PV cell).

And maybe some basic "control" modules like a switch, light-operated switch, oscillator etc.  Each control module would have both a small DC socket (power input) and a large DC socket (power output to actuator).

Each class of module (actuator, controller, power source) would have its own colour.

Does anyone know if a similar kit exist for purchase?

If not, I'll make the kit for my daughter, unless anyone has good evidence that such a project would still be way to advanced for a 2 year old.  Of course, I'll start with the real basics like just a battery module, switch, light and two cables to see how she gets on with it.

If the kit is a success then we could extend it by adding "control" / "audio" cables (maybe 3.5mm jack sockets) so we could make a simple telephone, radio, synthesiser etc etc. (Yes, you've guessed it: this entire project is just an excuse for me to finally get round to building the modular analogue synth I've wanted to build since I was a kid!).

(I also posted this on the Instructables forum)

(BTW, sorry I haven't posted much about my PhD work for a while. Been busily wrapping up my data collection work and writing a paper).

Data clustering in Python

Just a list of data clustering packages in Python

Reviews of energy saving lamps (LED and CFL)

Brief reviews of some energy saving lamps we've used.

Using computer science to improve environmental sustainability

I believe that computer science geeks have an important role to play in engineering our way out of the various environmental problems we currently find ourselves lumbered with.

This blog post is a non-exhaustive list of interesting subject areas for folks who, like me, are interested in both computer science and environmental sustainability. It aims to provide an (incomplete) answer to the question: how can a computer scientist contribute measurable improvements to our environmental sustainability?

Energy use recommendations

There are a number of systems and projects out there which aim to provide advice on your energy consumption. I don't personally do research on this stuff but it is quite closely related with my core work of disaggregation. So I wanted to start a list of energy use recommendations projects.

THIS LIST IS BY NO MEANS EXHAUSTIVE YET! Please, if you know of an energy recommendation project not currently on this list then please leave a comment and I'll add it! (Makes me think we need a wiki for this type of stuff...)

Smart Meters Equipment Tech Spec Version 2 (SMETS2)

By 2019 2020, all homes in the UK will have a smart meter installed. DECC is working on the spec for these meters at the moment. In the context of my PhD on smart meter disaggregation, I have several questions I need to answer about these specs:

  • exactly which power metrics will UK smart meters expose to the home area network (HAN)? (just active power? And reactive power? Can we distinguish between leading vs lagging? THD?)
  • report rate? (one measurement every 5 seconds? The 2011 "Functional Requirements Catalogue" said "The smart metering system shall support capture of consumption and demand data at 5 second intervals."
  • and how could a disaggregation system read these data?

The Smart Meters Equipment Tech Spec Version 2 (SMETS2) was released in Jan 2013. Some useful paragraphs for those of us interested in disaggregation:

UK-based disaggregation researchers

Are you based in the UK and working on some aspect of smart meter disaggregation (Non-Intrusive Load Monitoring / NILM / NIALM)? If so, please get in touch (either leave a comment at the bottom of this blog post or contact me directly). I was speaking to Oli Parsons and he came up with the great idea that we should have a UK disaggregation meetup!

UKERC International Energy Summer School

I've just stumbled across an interesting opportunity: a week-long summer school at Warwick from 7-12th July 2013 specifically for 2nd year PhD students doing PhDs related to Energy. It's free to attend but apparently the summer school is significantly oversubscribed. It sounds like it might be a good opportunity to present my work to a wide community of researchers and also to network with a diverse bunch of interesting people.

I wonder if any of the (small number of!) folks who read my blog have been in previous years (or might be tempted to apply this year)?! I'm going to apply now...

Update 27/3/2013: I've been accepted to attend. Yay!

Emails requesting I remove links from my site

Over the past few months, I have received three emails along the lines of this one:

It has come to our attention that your site may be linking to our own in a manner which we believe may be mutually harmful in SEO terms. For this reason, I would be very grateful if you would please remove all links to this site at your earliest convenience, letting me know that you have done so.

If you run a blog, have you received similar emails? My standard reply is along these lines:

I am happy to remove the link to <company name> from my site if necessary. However, before I do that...

(Forgive me for being paranoid and ultra-sceptical but...)

How do I know that you're not working for a competitor to <company name> who is trying to decrease the ranking of <company name> on search engines? I see that your email address comes from the domain <company name.suffix> but we all know that it's trivial to fake the "from" address of an email.

Please can you confirm that if I was to contact <company name> directly then they would confirm that you are working for them?

I understand that the Google Penguin search engine algorithm update targets "black-hat SEO techniques" such as participating in link schemes. However, I must emphasise that my website is just an "organic" blog. I was not paid to accept links from <company name>. If you feel that <company name> has been unfairly targeted by Google then please complain to Google using their Penguin feedback form.

Again, I'm really sorry to be so very sceptical about this. I just want to make sure I'm not being duped.

Following my reply, all three people who have contacted me have, so far at least, gone quiet.

Summary of my energy monitoring code

This is just a quick summary of the code I've been working on recently. The ultimate aim of all the code is to measure the whole-house electricity consumption and the consumption of individual appliances as cost-effectively as possible.

  • rfm_edf_ecomanager - C++ code for running on a Nanode (an Arduino clone with easy wireless support and networking). This code allows the Nanode to talk directly to multiple Current Cost whole-house sensors (CC TXs) as well as to multiple EDF Transmitter Plugs (CC TRXs). This code aims to capture data from the sensors as reliably as possible. For example, it learns when each CC TX is due to transmit and ensures that it stops polling the CC TRXs for a short window of time around the CC TX's ETA. You talk to the Nanode over the serial port. You can send simple commands. It sends data back to the PC in a simple JSON format.
  • rfm_ecomanager_logger - A Python script for communicating with the rfm_edf_ecomanager Nanode system. rfm_ecomanager_logger provides a command-line tool for "pairing" sensors with the logging system; assigning human-readable names to those sensors and then logging the data in a REDD-formatted form. Again, the emphasis is on reliable logging. It attempts to restart the Nanode if it dies. It goes to quite a lot of effort to make sure we correctly time stamp data (which is surprisingly difficult, especially given that the Nanode doesn't have a real time clock).
  • babysitter - A Python module for "babysitting" a logging system. Sends an email if a sensor dies or if rfm_ecomanager_logger fails. Also sends a "heartbeat" email once a day with some stats and a graph produce by powerstats:
  • powerstats - Produce stats and graphs from REDD-formatted power data. Mainly used for checking the health of sensors.
  • snd_card_power_meter - System for recording voltage and current waveforms at 96 khz, 20 bit per channel using a PC's sound card. Saves down-sampled high frequency data and also calculates real power and apparent power.

Also, I wrote a long guide to setting up a complete logging system which uses all the code listed above and is based on a small, low-cost, low-power Intel Atom system running Ubuntu Server.


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