Creation Crates: “Building the Makers of Tomorrow.”

If you spend any time at all on the internet, you will see advertisements for a variety of subscription boxes.  No matter what you may be interested in, it seems that you can find a box to suit your fancy.  I enjoyed the idea of the Creation Crates and their goal to teach electronics, coding, and problem-solving.  Since I was a youth, building and creating has been a favorite pastime.  We did not have the electronics, the computers, the coding, nor the tech that we have today.  We could build with Lincoln Logs, Legos, Erector Sets, etc. and then our imaginations had to do the rest.  Modern technology has led to innovations/options that were beyond our wildest dreams even a single generation ago.

CreationCrate Fritzing Diagram
The idea behind this particular subscription box is that they will send you the necessary components and the instructions, with the excitement of building and exploration being left up to you.  The CreationCrate box is a curriculum style box, which expands upon previous lessons.  The first month of the Creation Crate will teach you how to build and to program a Mood Lamp.  The kit arrived in an 8 3/8 inches wide by 5 1/2 inches thick by 2 1/2 inches tall white box.  Across the top, in light blue, you will see the cartoonish title “Creation Crate” and across the flap “Building the Makers of Tomorrow.”  Opening the lid, you will immediately see the components of the kit: Individually wrapped MB-102 Solderless breadboard, instruction/coding manual, 21 1/2 inch USB-A to USB-B cable, a bag of #6 U-shaped jumper wires, #3 LED (Red, Green and Blue), a light dependent resistor, 2.2k OHM resistor, Uno R3 (Arduino-compatible controller), #8 Regular Jumper Wires, and a folded Chinese paper lantern. To start, set the pieces aside and open the manual.

The first step for the crate is to build the hardware.  Pages three and four of the instruction manual detail the instructions and provide a very helpful wiring diagram.  Unfortunately, the diagram is not as helpful as the diagram on the website.  Taking a screenshot on my MacBook Pro (Cmd+Shift+4), I was able to see where to plug the wires more easily.  The breadboard is a solderless board, and you essentially plug the wires into the correct holes.  The fit was perfect, and the wires had very little wiggle.  When complete, there was a sense of accomplishment, but no understanding as to why I put the wires into those particular locations.  With the premise of the crate to build and expand on knowledge, I felt that there was a degree of knowledge that you had to have to make this kit work.  Do the columns matter?  Do the rows matter?  What are the jumpers and wires doing and how do they interact with each other? What is the Uno R3, what is it doing and why is it included?  This information was not readily available in the manual, and I had to turn to the internet to learn more.  I wish that this information was included in the manual, but alas it was not.  The rows along the breadboard are linked but do not cross the middle divider.  This allows you to place a computer/controller across the midline and not cause issues.  There are two outer columns along either side of the board, which serve as power and ground. The R3 microcomputer is what will control your creation, once you program it (step 2).

CreationCrate
After you follow the Fritzing diagram, you can visit http://mycreationcrate.com/month-1 and enter the password that is included in the manual.  The website will show you the better picture of the manual diagram.  The website is very helpful and provides some of the information that is lacking in the instruction manual.  You will need a computer to program the mood light.  Page five of the instruction manual will direct you to https://www.arduino.cc/en/main/software. From there, you can download the Arduino Software.  Open the program, open a new file, delete the pre-existing code and then type the program that is included in the manual.  Anything labeled with // or /* provides comments only and is not readable code.  The makers of the box do a wonderful job at explaining what each line represents, talking about the pins on the Uno R3, what the variables represent and overall what each line of the code is telling the build to do.  If you do not want to type all of the information, you can cheat and download the already typed code.

Once the program is complete, you can click verify along the top left, and this will run the code.  I had no issues with this on my MacBook Pro.  Plug the USB-B into the Mood lamp and then the USB-A into the computer USB-A port.  This is the step that caused my excitement to turn to ire.  Clicking the upload button caused the application to display an upload error.  Unfortunately, I was not able to get this kit to work with my MacBook, at all.  I was able to verify the program, but when I tried to run it, I continually received errors.  I navigated to the troubleshooting page, within the manual, and then went to Arduino Troubleshooting.  I rechecked the program, opened a new file and copied the cheat program (premade code), and again received the same error message.  I went into tools within the Arduino application, made sure that the port was correct and that the correct Arduino/Uno board type was selected.  I navigated to numerous websites, read other peoples reviews, looked through images and made sure that the build and programming were correct.  I assure you that there was nothing wrong with the build nor the code.  The problem was a connection between the Arduino and the MacBook.  I am not a computer programming specialist, but I am also not a beginner.

CreationCrate Program
I continued to receive problem uploading to the board, navigated to tools, changed the USB port, made sure the board was correctly chosen and made sure that the drivers were updated.  Nothing I tried was successful.  I sent an email to the company to see if they had any ideas and I copied the error into google and reviewed the issues.  I found multiple other people had similar issues with other Arduino boards, giving this same error.   Some people may have given up at that point and moved on to other endeavors.  However,  I am not a quitter.   I tend to continue to work on the problem until I solve it. Luckily, I have other computers, and I turned to my wife’s HP laptop. I copied the code from the Arduino application and sent it to myself in an email.  I used that same copy within the Arduino application on the PC laptop. Repeating the same steps above, I found no issues compiling and this time the program uploaded.  I was rewarded immediately with a color changing mood lamp.  If the ambient lighting proved adequate, the resistance would increase, and the LEDs would extinguish.  If the lighting proved to be inadequate, the resistance would decrease, and the LEDs would illuminate.  My children were in awe of this process.  Using the flashlight on my iPhone X, I could turn on/off the LEDs.

At the very end of the instruction manual, you will find a series of exercises.  The first exercise wanted you to change the brightness. To do this, you would have to understand the variables and adjust them to change the max value.  I will not provide a spoiler as this was truly the best part of the build.  Re-reading the manual code, you can learn and not simply regurgitate the code.  The second exercise wanted you to change the rate of color change and offered a hint that you could complete this utilizing three separate methods.  Again adjusting variables within the coding, you can make the LED colors change faster or slower.  Thirdly, you were instructed to add a new variable to control what happens with stronger/weaker ambient lighting.  Finally, there is a bonus hardware task which directs you to understand the breadboard mechanics.  It asks you to move the light dependent resistor to another place on the board to make the system work.  Solutions to the problems are available on the creationcrate.com/month-1 website if needed.  I would make sure that you want the spoiler before you look at the site.  The best way to learn the coding, what it does and how to adjust it, is by simply playing with the kit.  My eight-year-old son enjoyed this activity, and he kept asking questions about the code and what would happen if changes were made.

CreationCrate Mood Lamp
The prices may seem a little high for the subscription model: $29.99 for one month, $26.99 monthly for three months, $25.49 monthly for six months, or $22.49 for a year.  You are getting quite a bit for this price, and ultimately the first-month crate was well worth the price.  Each month will teach you programming skills, wiring skills and the website suggests that when you attain the 12 badges that you will have “more hands-on programming experience than 99% of current college-level computer science students.”  Through the Creation Crate shop, you can purchase extra components: buttons, displays, audio, lights, boards, cases, etc.  To summarize, the kit is really neat and seems to focus more on the programming than the circuit building and the physics.  I found that this was not adequate and I would have liked a pre-course or perhaps an introductory box to breadboard technology.  It is difficult to complete the bonus hardware exercise without a basic knowledge of the breadboard.  To gain this knowledge, you may look towards the Science Buddies Website and follow their tutorial.  This was incredibly helpful to understand the breadboard, the wires and the how-to set up the mood lamp.

I would rate the idea of the crate as 5/5 stars, but I did have issues with my setup.  I found it frustrating that I could not get this to work on my MacBook Pro.  As detailed above, the program compiled appropriately, but there was some issue with the upload that I could not answer.  Despite this hiccup, I persevered and ran the program on my PC laptop.  This kit is amazing, and I would definitely consider this subscription model for the tech lover in your family.

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