TPiB: Soldering with teens: just like hot glue, but metal

Before I did it, soldering seemed like some kind of Super Advanced Tech Stuff that was way out of my league for teen programming. The only soldering I’d done was using a wide tipped soldering iron in stained glass work which, a friend observed, was more like using a bulldozer than the garden trowel required […]

tpibBefore I did it, soldering seemed like some kind of Super Advanced Tech Stuff that was way out of my league for teen programming. The only soldering I’d done was using a wide tipped soldering iron in stained glass work which, a friend observed, was more like using a bulldozer than the garden trowel required in soldering printed circuit boards. I’m here to tell you, folks: if you can use a hot glue gun, you can use a soldering iron.

Supplies

Soldering does require a good number of supplies. The startup costs are moderate, but easier to swallow when you keep in mind that most of the supplies can be purchased once and used multiple times. I started with this Elenco Learn To Solder kit which includes nearly everything you need and can be found for less than $12. This includes the project and a soldering iron. Additional items that you’ll need to pick up:

a kitchen sponge or high quality paper towels that can be dampened

a “helping hand” or “third hand” (optional)

non-slip shelf liners   that can be used as anti-static placemat style workspaces

a box fan if your meeting room has less than awesome ventilation

Preparation

Like with all programs, you want to be prepared. Take an afternoon and work on the project yourself. Watch some YouTube videos to see the techniques that other people use. Read some tutorials. Ask a friend to lend a hand if you know anyone who is into HAM radio or electronics or uses soldering in their work. You can do this.

When the day of the event comes, I suggest setting up each participant’s workstation before hand. There’s something about walking into the room to see tidy individual workspaces that immediately sets the tone for the group and says it’s not a free for all. It’s a focused class.

Troubleshooting

Some of the projects are going to work. Some are not. When they don’t, encourage the teen to look at all of the contacts and see if any solder is shorting out a connection. Check the direction of the pieces — are any inserted backwards? Make sure that they assembled the kit right side up… not upside down like I did the first time! Troubleshooting is part of the process and as valuable a lesson to work through as the soldering itself is. Not everything works the first time, and that’s ok.

Safety

Yes, it seems scary to give teens hot metal pointy sticks. But if you can imagine the group using a hot glue gun to attach seed beads, you can give them soldering irons. Make it clear how to be safe: the tips always need to rest in their holders when they’re not in use. Always watch where the iron is and be conscious of the cords (I attach a multi-outlet strip to the table with duct tape so that there aren’t cords trailing off of the table.) Unplug the iron and let it cool before you move it. Have a first aid kit at the ready just in case someone does get burned. If you are soldering with a large group in a room without good ventilation, setting up a fan to circulate air will make for a more comfortable experience.

Projects

I’ve used several different kits, and in addition to the above linked learn to solder kit, I really liked Adafruit’s Game Of Life kit. This is great for beginners because there are multiples of most of the pieces and you get a lot of practice at the actual soldering without needing to know a whole lot about the different components. Plus, you can connect them together, it flashes cool lights and there’s no obnoxious alarm!

Beyond kits, there are lots of small projects that you can tackle from basic circuits to light up corsages.

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