Circuit Cubes teaches kids basics of circuitry with Lego blocks, light-up LEDs

Tactile learning is one of the most powerful ways to teach a kid. Kids who touch and feel their way through a difficult subject tend to internalize — and articulate — the concepts better. And for a subject as abstract as circuitry, there’s perhaps no better way to convey the basics than with Circuit Cubes, snap-on modules that kids can use to build the machines of their dreams.

There’s a motor cube that drives a gear shaft at 1,000 RMPs, an LED module that lights up brightly when attached to a completed circuit, and a rechargeable battery module that last up to one hour of active play (and three days on standby).

It’s the debut effort of longtime educators Nate MacDonald and John Schuster, who spent years developing lessons with an interdisciplinary basis in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. MacDonald co-founded Sonoma State University’s Maker Certificate program and advised the White Hill Robotics Club, an elective at White Hill Middle School in Fairfax, California.

Schuster, the former IT director at White Hill Middle School, teamed up with MacDonald to found Tenka Labs, a startup with a mission to design toys that are “as fun to play with and build with, but that along the way, enable kids to learn about basic circuitry.”

Legos + circuits = fun

Intuitiveness was a core consideration in the Circuit Cubes’ design. Each module measures two standard Lego bricks high and four Lego bricks wide and pairs via two silver terminals on the modules’ front.

“We wanted the form factor to be approachable, but small enough to build structures with,” Schuster said, “and we wanted the components to be visible so that kids could experiment.”

To that point, the base of the motor and LED module are made of a translucent material, and motor lines on the bottom show the flow of electricity. That’s to demonstrate the concept of polarity and resistance, Schuster said. Attaching a motor module directly to a battery module will cause it to spin quickly, but adding an LED module to the circuit will slow it down. Swapping the negative and positive contacts, on the other hand, will cause it to reverse its direction.

“It teaches kids basic technology literacy,” he said. “It’s not about the blocks themselves but what you can make with them.” It’s not so complicated that kids couldn’t figure out how to build things on their own, Schuster was quick to point out. “The minute kids have to go ask their parents for help, they’ve lost ownership of it,” he said. As a result, the system is simple enough that kids can construct a simple gadget without much thought. “They can build a car in tens seconds or less.”

Different designs for all interests

Circuit Cubes ship in one of three $60 kits differentiated by pack-ins. The Whacky Wheels kit ships with building instructions for cars, trucks, bikes, bridges, and Ferris wheels. Bright Lights boasts templates for telescoping tools, light sabers, and superhero GOBO. The Smart Art kit comes with felt tip pens for drawing robots that produce swirling designs on canvases.

The kits don’t prescribe designs, though. “The core ones allow you to do so many things,” John said. “It’s a design driven by kids. Their inspiration is what it’s all about.”

“It’s a design driven by kids. Their inspiration is what it’s all about.”

Schuster showed off a few models early Circuit Cube testers put together. There was a cut-out butterfly that flapped its wings with the help of a motor module, a battery module, and a few moving Lego “limbs.” An AT-AT_inspired walker moved lumbered forward, and another simulated rotating lights that’d be right at home on top of a police siren.

One of the most inventive creations was a toy rabbit that’d been stuffed with a Lego “skeleton” comprising a “spine,” a battery module, and a motor module that caused it to nod its head as though it was acknowledging Schuster’s words. “It’s a bit creepy,” he said. “But that’s the beauty. The Circuit Cubes allow almost endless creativity. ”

Getting kids into tech

The launch of Circuit Cubes comes as the U.S. faces record growth in demand — 17 percent by 2024 — for STEM jobs. But there’s a shortage of qualified candidates. The country ranks 27th in math compared to the rest of the world, and only 36 percent of the country’s high school graduates are ready to take college-level science courses.

“Kids need to be completely engaged first if they’re going to really absorb complex concepts on how things work,” Schuster said. He and MacDonald are developing a classroom curriculum for the Circuit Cube kits that are launching today, and are building an online community that’ll host “hundreds” of projects that kids will be able to “get ideas from.”

circuit cubes news
Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

“When kids are having fun, they’re at their maximum learning curve to develop the skills needed to start building and designing things, and to go on their own adventure,” he said.

Schuster and MacDonald are focusing on the launch of the first-generation Circuit Cubes, but they’re already hard at work on a future iteration that will allow kids to control modules with a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth.

“It’s like the cheese on the broccoli,” said Schuster. “It’s forgetting about what the Circuit Cubes can do and creating some cool adventure.”

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Write music with your voice, make homemade cheese

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Cars

Tesla gives us a cryptic look at its cyberpunk, Blade Runner-inspired pickup

Tesla has started designing its long-promised pickup truck. The yet-unnamed model will come with dual-motor all-wheel drive and lots of torque, plus it will be able to park itself. It could make its debut in 2019.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (March 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in March, from Buster Scruggs to Roma

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Computing

Nvidia’s A.I. Playground lets you edit photos, experience deep learning research

Nvidia is making it easier to access information on deep learning research. It has launched an online space with three demos for image editing, styling, as well as photorealistic image synthesis. 
Business

British Airways’ new Club Suite for business class comes with a door

British Airways is going after a bigger slice of the business class market with the imminent launch of the Club Suite. The plush seating option offers a more private space as well as an easier route to the bathroom.
Emerging Tech

The U.S. Army is building a giant VR battlefield to train soldiers virtually

Imagine if the U.S. Army was able to rehearse battlezone scenarios dozens, or even hundreds, or times before settling foot on actual terrain. Thanks to virtual reality, that's now a possibility.
Smart Home

Sony’s Aibo robot dog can now patrol your home for persons of interest

Sony released the all-new Aibo in the U.S. around nine months ago, and since then the robot dog has (hopefully) been melting owners' hearts with its cute looks and clever tricks. Now it has a new one up its sleeve.
Emerging Tech

Inflating smart pills could be a painless alternative to injections

Could an inflating pill containing hidden microneedles replace painful injections? The creators of the RaniPill robotic capsule think so — and they have the human trials to prove it.
Emerging Tech

A silver bullet is being aimed at the drug-resistant superbugs on the ISS

A bacteria which is benign here on Earth can mutate into a drug-resistant superbug once it enters space. Now this problem is being tackled by a team of microbiologists who have found a way to inhibit the spread of bacteria in the ISS.
Emerging Tech

Tombot is the hyper-realistic dog robot that puts Spot to shame

Forget Boston Dynamics’ Spot! When it comes to robot dogs, the folks behind a new Kickstarter campaign have plans to stake their claim as makers of man’s (and woman’s) newest best friend.
Emerging Tech

Researchers gave alligators headphones and ketamine, and all for a good cause

Researchers in Germany and the United States recently gave ketamine and earphones to alligators to monitor how they process sounds. Here's what it reveals about alligator evolution.
Emerging Tech

Cheese tastes different when it listens to Led Zeppelin, Swiss study finds

A funky new study says that exposing cheese to music changes its aroma and flavor. What’s more, the genre of music matters. Researchers from the Bern University of Arts played music to nine, 22-pound wheels of Emmental cheese.
Emerging Tech

Astronomers plan to beam Earth’s greatest hits into deep space, and you can help

A new project from the SETI Institute (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) will give the public the chance to submit compositions to be beamed into space, with the aim of connecting people around the world through music.