July 20, 2017

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SLJ Reviews LittleBits: These bright, appealing sets encourage tinkerers to explore electronics

SLJ1502-TK-LittleBits-BaseCircuit

SLJ1502-TK-LittleBitsScoreImagine if building a flashlight was as easy as stacking blocks, or that you could build a robot with a shoebox, nine-volt battery, and a pile of components small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Enter littleBits, a modular, à la carte electronics prototyping platform for users of all skill levels. Like a version of Scratch built for real-world electronics, LittleBits delivers on its block-based potential to make “making” more accessible than ever.

LittleBits differs from other DIY electronics sets such as the popular Arduino Inventor’s Kit in that littleBits secures each “element”—or piece of a circuit—inside its own electronic “building block” called a “module.” Every module is an interlocking block, which snaps securely into place with the adjacent modules using a conductive, magnetic connection akin to a MacBook power cord. You don’t breadboard, solder, or wire a littleBits circuit so much as assemble it piece-by-piece as if you’re building a model or puzzle.

What does it do?

Each littleBits circuit begins with a nine-volt battery connected to a power module that snaps into place against the next bit of the circuit, which might be a light-emitting diode (LED), motor, fan, switch, servo, or sensor. Wire modules let you make flexible circuits that fit inside larger projects, like robots. “Branch” modules allow you to build out in several directions at once. Each element is color-coded by type so that new users can quickly and easily distinguish between a circuit’s power source, inputs, outputs, and wires.

Each littleBits kit features a set of modules that can be combined into several circuits and projects. Make a flashlight or light-sensing alarm with one, or build your own electronic instrument or robot with another. Each DIY project uses common items, such as scissors, glue, cardboard, and disposable cups. Clear, well-illustrated instructions guide you through each build.

Projects created with the premium kit.

Projects created with the premium kit.

I got to work with the Base Kit ($99) and the Premium Kit ($149) bundled together as a ‘Student Set’ with an educational discount ($232.90). Each kit offers a different assortment of modules. For example, the Base Kit includes such elements as a button, dimmer, light sensor, and buzzer, while the Premium Kit includes a fan, sound trigger, vibration motor, and servo.

LittleBits’ packaging is sturdy and secure, for easy storage. There’s ample room in each kit to keep each module in its own tailored, cardboard pocket, so organization is a breeze. These kits are attractive; they look appealing and make all the bits and pieces seem manageable, even for novice electricians and engineers. You can also purchase littleBits-branded tackle boxes ($24.95) with dozens of compartments, or look for cheaper tool and tackle boxes for storage at your local hardware or home-improvement store.

Who is it for?

The careful design and engineering of each littleBits kit makes it so easy to use that beginners of all ages—eight to infinity, according to each package—can build a circuit in minutes, if not seconds. The illustrated projects take a bit longer to make than individual circuits do, but nothing in the kits I reviewed seemed too difficult for beginners. Therefore, these sets are great for one-time events and workshops, as well as for clubs and classrooms that tackle one project at a time. I’ve seen other littleBits kits with more complex projects, but these two sets—the Base Kit and the Premium Kit—are accessible, dependable, and fun starting places for learners interested in electronics.

The littleBits website hosts a fairly robust user community with user-submitted projects, educational resources, and a “bitLab” billed as “an app store for hardware.” Users submit their ideas, and kits with broad community support go into production. Those kits are sold, with the profits split between littleBits and a kit’s designer. Educational resources include case studies from classrooms, libraries, and museums.

LittleBits in Kits

Arduino Coding Kit. Take a next step into coding with littleBits.

Popular Science Super Bundle. Combines the Arduino and Smart Home Kits.

Smart Home Kit. Use littleBits to control household electronics.

Space Kit (designed with NASA). Includes lesson plans from NASA.

Synth Kit (designed with Korg). Make your own electronic instruments.

LittleBits distinguishes itself from other players in the DIY, educational electronics field by emphasizing out-of-the-box accessibility and by paying attention to formal educational spaces in ways that informal hackerspace platforms do not (though you can buy mega-kits for your makerspaces from littleBits, as well). This makes the littleBits’ Student Set a reasonable investment for schools and libraries that want to sponsor and teach hands-on STEAM projects without concern for how to build and program circuits all at once. The “coding” here comes from the sequencing of modules and the relationships of sensors, switches, and dimmers to output modules like lights, buzzers, and motors. You can learn about electricity and the interrelationship of elements and modules with littleBits, but you don’t see the relationship of computer code to those things.

Where can I go from here?

You can make an awful lot from each kit without needing to learn a coding language. However, both the littleBits Arduino Kit and Arduino kits from other manufacturers offer immediate next steps from littleBits to an even larger world of physical computing. When you buy a Student Set, you pay more than you would for an Arduino Inventor’s Kit from a company like SparkFun. However, teachers and students can use littleBits straightaway, with little or no training in electronics or code. If you’re looking at building a general audience, classroom or library makerspace—or a new kind of career and technical education class—you might look at littleBits as a year-one purchase and consider Arduino for year two.

Even without “pure” coding, littleBits is a strong prototyping platform: it lets you “see” a build before you have to think of how to code it and it lets you view yourself as a engineer before you ever have to confront the sprawl of a crowded breadboard or the slight terror of an error code thrown in the console.

Sansing-Chad_Contrib_WebChad Sansing (csansing@gmail.com) teaches middle school language arts in Staunton, VA.

This article was published in School Library Journal's February 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. Students LOVE using littleBits in our elementary library’s makerspace centers, and I wrote a review of them last year with a focus on elementary students’ use: http://wp.me/pheWo-i3