I have just had a great idea for an educational toy. I call my idea “patch panel electronics” and the name will become apparent after I explain my idea. (This blog post assumes that you know what a patch panel is.)
My idea is an educational toy that provides electronics components like resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors, a speaker, a motor, etc. The child/student provides a battery and connects it along some of these components according to instructions that are given in a booklet and thus she is able to create small circuits that are fun and educational.
OK, but this has been done before. There are different kinds of electronics kits available that do exactly this sort of thing. I will describe their types very briefly and then I will explain why my idea is different and its usefulness.
There are kits that provide components that are rigidly placed in a board. My idea does exactly that, but it has more to it, as you will see later on. So, in the other kits, the components are rigidly placed in a board and the student makes connections between the battery and the components, thus creating a fun and educational circuit. Some kits conceal some of the components, making life easier for the student, but at the same time they hide the information that these components are part of the circuit.
Other kits reveal all components, thus the student knows everything about the circuit she is building. I like these kits and my idea does exactly that (but, again, it has more to it, as you will see later on).
So, we have kits that expose all components and all their connectors and place then rigidly on a board. All the student has to do is connect some specific connectors in some specific manner to get some specific circuit.
So far, so good. The problem with the resulting circuit is what the student sees at the end. Well, what she sees at the end is the board she knows, with all the components she knows, rigidly placed on the board, and on top of that, a spaghetti of cables, where each cable connects two connectors.
So, by looking at the end result, the student has difficulty explaining the circuit. She has to go the to schematic, which is nicely drawn in order to depict the circuit, in order to explain the spaghetti of cables that she sees.
The same problem occurs when the student uses a breadboard (an electronics breadboard, not the one we use to cut the bread). The student begins from a nicely drawn circuit schematic. Then she places the components on the breadboard so as to minimize the number of cables that will be used to connect the components. Then the student connects all connections that could not be made implicitly via the breadboard, and the circuit is ready. But by looking at the breadboard, all the student sees is a bunch of components that she has to “trace”, connection-wise, in order to get a “feel” for the circuit. Conversely, just by looking at the original schematic, the student is immediately able to explain the circuit.
And the problem deteriorates with PCBs (printed circuit boards). When you look at a PCB, you have a hard time deciphering (reverse engineering) it in order to understand the circuit it implements. When you are given the original schematic, things become way more clear.
So, in one hand, we have the nicely drawn circuit schematics, that you can understand but they are just a drawing, and on the other hand you have the circuit’s implementation that works but is hard to understand.
Well, my idea is about an educational toy that helps you build circuits by connecting rigidly placed components and those circuits look like their original schematic. So you have the best of both worlds: You can see the actual circuit in front of you, completed and working, but what you see is not a mess of cable spaghetti. Instead, you see the original schematic and you can reason about the circuit and you can understand it.
How is that possible?
Well, imagine that this toy has two levels, instead of one level. Imagine this toy as a transparent rectangular 3D box. Its upper surface is what I call the patch panel, where the schematic of the circuit will be. Its lower/bottom surface is what I call the components board, where the electronic components and the battery are rigidly placed.
Thus, my toy consists of two surfaces, one on the top (the patch panel) and one on the bottom (the component board).
Let me explain how all this comes together. Let me begin with the lower surface, the component board. It just needs to be a surface where all the electronic components that we need are rigidly placed there. No connector is in contact with any other connector. No pre-connected things exist. No cheating, ho help for the student. Help for the student in this case is actually misdirection for her. Each component has its connectors easily accessible so the student can make connections to them.
But here is the important part. The cable connections that the student will make to the connectors of the components are somewhat perpendicular to the two surfaces. The student connects a connector of a component right up to the patch panel, in a place where the use has placed and pinpointed.
So, the student connects connectors from the component board with points in the patch panel. The points in the patch panel have been created by the student according to the schematic that she has placed on the patch panel.
No connections between connectors on the component board exist and/or are being made. This is very important. The only connections that exist on the component board go up to the patch panel. So, imagine that the component board has some patch cables and each is connected to one connector and goes up from the component board to the patch panel. All cables go up. No cable is used to connect to another connector.
The patch panel surface is above the component board surface and on top of, the student lays the schematic. Or not. The student can just imagine the schematic if she is so inclined. So on the patch panel surface, the student places neatly pictures of the components. The pictures are double-sided, so they can be turned appropriately. The student then creates points on the patch panel, each point corresponding to a connector.
Let me give you an example. Suppose the student places the image of a transistor on the patch panel. Then, close to the image the student will add three points/connectors, one for the base, one for the emitter and one for the collector of the transistor. Now, if the surface of the patch panel comprises of many tiny holes very close to one another, the student can use specially provided screws with thin bodies that go in a hole and come out underneath. Then they can be screwed in place underneath and accept the cable that comes from the component board. For example, the base point in the patch panel will be connected with the cable that comes from the corresponding connector at the component board. That would be the base of a transistor, of course, rigidly placed on the component board.
So, on the patch panel the student draws the schematic or places pictures of pictures of components that are in the component board surface underneath. Then the student creates points of connection on the patch panel, with special screws with springs that can hold cables. The points of connections are those that correspond to the connectors of the real electronic components that are in the component board underneath. And those points on the patch panel are connected by the student using cables with the real connectors on the component board.
Then, to complete the circuit, all the student has to do is to connect the appropriate points on the patch panel with cables, making horizontal (so to speak) connections.
Thus: a) we have no horizontal connections on the component board. b) The student places images of the components and creates connectors for them on the patch panel. c) The student makes vertical cable connections, each between a connector of a real component in the component board and its corresponding connector in the patch panel. d) The student makes horizontal connections between the connectors in the patch panel to complete the circuit.
Here is how the current flows in the completed circuit. The battery on the component board sends current with a vertical cable to the plus sign connector near its picture on the patch panel. (The student placed the battery’s image and its connectors on the patch panel). The current flows through a horizontal cable that the student connected up to a connector near the image of the first component. Then the current dives down through the vertical cable that the user placed to connect the connector in the image on the patch panel to the connector of the real component on the component board. Then if the real component so allows, the current will pass through it and come out to another of its connectors on the component board and then come up to the patch panel again, through a cable that the student used to connect the latter connector with the new corresponding connector near the image of the component.
So, for each component connection depicted on the patch panel, the current is redirected to the actual component connector.
With this toy, we can achieve great insight on how small circuits function and we can easily learn the characteristics of electronic components. This toy is especially useful in the study of small transistor circuits from one to a few transistors. Now, if we want to see some components, or we want them near us (components such as a switch, a variable resistor, a photo diode, a led, a speaker, a motor, etc.) we can have the bottom layer (component board) be bigger and extend far from the upper layer (patch panel). This way we can see these components and interact with them, knowing that they correspond to their picture in the schematic on the patch panel.
Since the student places the connectors near each component image on the patch panel, she can place them so that the logical view of the schematic is not changed in any way, even when integrated circuits (i.e. components with many connectors) are used. My idea can accommodate the most difficult of cases. In the case of an integrated circuit, although its actual pins cannot be moved and the same holds true for its connectors on the component board surface, each corresponding connector in the patch panel can be placed anywhere so that the schematic remains simple. Of course, the student should label each connector on the patch panel, so she can know that this connector corresponds to the minus pin of the capacitor and that connector corresponds to the 3rd pin of the integrated circuit and so on.
Of course, as is in the case of the normal patch panel we use in networking, the major downside is that we need way more cable to complete the connections and that way more connections are needed. The same downside occurs here. But I think that it may be acceptable in most cases, because what we gain (design and implementation clarity) is very important.
The following images will help explain the whole toy and its concepts in detail.
The following image shows the box. The lower surface (component board) holds the real components. The upper surface (patch panel) has nothing on it but a drawing. Consider this to do be a sheet of paper which has a circuit drawn on it. Again, there are no electric components on the upper surface.
Now the student adds connectors to each component’s image. The connectors are denoted as red circles. The student adds four connectors, two for the battery pins and two for the resistor pins.
Then the student uses four cables (denoted with the yellow color) to connect each connector on the upper surface to its corresponding connector on the lower surface. The yellow cables are inside the box and connect to the red connectors under the upper surface. The student can open the patch panel surface as a lid. The whole box is transparent. After the student closes the lid (patch panel surface), she cannot touch the yellow cables, because they run inside the box.
Then the student connects the images of the components of the upper layer using green cables. The student only needs to use two green cables for this particular circuit. The student can see and touch the green cables, because they are above the patch panel surface. The circuit is now complete.
The following image shows how the current moves through the circuit. It begins from the positive pole of the battery, goes through the yellow cable (1), then through the green cable (2), then through the yellow cable (3), then through the resistor (4), then through the yellow cable (5), then through the green cable (6), then through the yellow cable (7) to the negative pole of the battery.
Please note that the colors of the cables have nothing to do with the functionality of the circuit. I used two colors (yellow and green) in this example in order to separate the cables that are inside the box from those that are on the surface. But all are regular cables.
Please note that the four vertical sides of the box need not exist. The upper and lower horizontal surfaces can be held together by four vertical pillars. one on each vertical edge.
Also, please note that a regular electronics breadboard can be used as the component board. In this case, the components must be placed so that no connections are made on the breadboard itself.
Update at December 29th, 2013: A group of people has invented a pen with ink that has conductive properties. This should go greatly with my invention. If the student draws the lines of the circuit in the patch panel surface using this pen, she will have no need to use cables in the patch panel surface (the green cables 2 and 6 will not be needed). This will make circuit implementations even more speedy.