Enhance your Arduino skills with this monthly Tech Education-In-A-Box subscription
Is there anything more exciting than building, creating, and learning via hands-on experience? Even though the STEM acronym was not introduced until 2001, I believe that many of my childhood toys engendered the same ideals. One of my fondest memories growing up was playing Legos with my father. Sometimes, we would build kits with the instructions and other times we would let our imaginations run amok. All the while learning, I would find his creations to be superior to mine and I would want to play with them. Imagine my excitement when my children grew old enough to allow me to experience the other role. Now, we love learning about natural phenomenon, completing science experiments, and tinkering.
We have tried a variety of the subscription boxes and found Creation Crate to be an incredibly rewarding activity. For $22.49 per month, you can enroll in the base kit or for $39.99 you can enroll in the upgraded kit. If desired, you can choose a three, six or twelve-month option to decrease the per month cost. The boxes combine an UNOR3, transparent breadboard and a variety of components. If you choose to upgrade, you get upgraded components, reimagined multi-stage projects, an attractive design box, and other perks. Whether you choose the 18 Uno R3 Standard Subscription or the 12 Uno R3 Upgraded Subscription, you are subscribing to a STEM.org certified curriculum. Each of the courses was designed to provide a cumulative, progressive, hands-on hardware/programming experience. Do not fret, as you will not need to run out to buy a bunch of things to enjoy the Creation Crate. You may need a hobby knife, pen/pencil, tape, ruler and perhaps a hot glue gun but most of us have those already. Save access to a computer with internet and a free USB-A port, everything else that you will need comes in the box. Each experience will be slightly different, depending on the project/month. I had the luxury of completing the first month of the general subscription (MOOD LIGHT) and the fourth month of the Upgraded subscription (BOOMBOX).
The BOOMBOX, like the other kits arrived with an Arduino-compatible UNO R3 board micro-computer, a breadboard, and instructions to build the BOOMBOX (online). Within the box, there was a very useful parts list which detailed the Uno R3, Transparent Breadboard, Red Bluetooth module CT14 v1.6, 53mm speaker 4ohm/5Watt, momentary switch, white nylon nut/screw, jumper wires M-M and F-M, 16×2 LCD screen, 5V/3A US plug adapter, two-pin screw terminal blocks, double-sided tape squares, jumper wires, T1 channel relay module with light coupling 5V, micro USB breadboard 5V power supply, a flat-tipped screwdriver and an attractive orange/grey cardboard BOOMBOX shell. Much to the dismay of my wife, my son and I moved to our kitchen table to build our Bluetooth speaker. We laid out the components and then pieced them together. Navigating to the creationcrate.com website, the instructions allowed us to piece together the speaker similar to a Lego build. The first panel of the online instruction manual detailed the three-step setup. The first step was to attach a speaker to a Bluetooth module and then subsequent months will add a microphone and then color-changing RGB LED. The learning objectives were well laid out and easy to follow: what is Bluetooth, Switches, Pull Up Resistor, LCD Screen, How speakers Work, LCD screen controls, and provided classroom learning courses to improve your knowledge.
One of the best features of the creation crate system is that you do not have to be an expert to enjoy the activity. They provide resources to shore up weaknesses and if you follow the curriculum, you will learn quite a bit about circuits and programming. With the cumulative approach, the instructions add new components and programming features with each new month box. The instruction layout provided useful information to understand the flow of power, and how to assemble the hardware. Start the build by cutting out the recommended perforated sections (speaker, boom box flap, lcd screen, boom box front, boom box back) and then create the internal walls with the extra piece of cardboard. Lay the breadboard on the table and start connecting the wires as indicated. You will then need to create the wiring harness for the Bluetooth module, slide the connectors onto the button, attach jumper wires to the relay, and add the Micro-USB adapter. The above steps proved to be very easy, but the step to add the Micro-USB adaptor required a bit of thought. The pins on the adaptor were soldered opposite to the instruction manual and the GND (Ground) and VCC (Power) were reversed. The U shaped jumpers and the long wires had to be repositioned as well, which did require a bit more than the basic knowledge. The following step caused an even bigger issue as it appeared that one of the rails of my breadboard did not have power (Multimeter). I plugged in the LCD screen and the UNO R3 but the LCD would not activate. When I used my multimeter to test every connection, I found that the problem was with the left sided rail. Understanding the layout, I was able to mov the wires to regain function. I successively connected each of the components together and assembled the entire working structure prior to adding it to the shell. With the build done, it was possible to test/use the system at that point.
With the circuit completed, tested, and functional, I added the breadboard, the Uno R3, the modules, the LCD screen and the speakers into the inside of the cardboard box. With the build complete, I turned to my MacBook Pro and create.arduino.cc. This step may seem overwhelming but it should not be. If you are new to this entire process, they provided online classroom tutorials to improve your baseline skill set (www.creationcrate.com/classroom. If you have experience with programming, you can use their hints and figure it out yourself. However, if you are a coding newb, you can copy their code to see how it works, then tweak it, and then learn from it. Beyond the programming, this kit required you to search and include a new library (LiquidCrystal_I2C. This step was a little confusing and required a quick internet search. ). Once the code was entered, I plugged the Uno R3 board into my MacBook Pro with the included USB cable. I navigated to Sketch and then uploaded the code. When the program initialized, the speaker produced a tone and the LCD displayed “Boom Box Mode: Bluetooth.” The first time I tried this process, the LCD did not illuminate. It would flash but it did not display the information. It was through this process that I retraced the hardware and found a section of my breadboard was non functional. Moving a few wires around, I was able to enjoy this setup.
Beyond the obvious family building experience, one of my favorite aspects of this setup was learning how Bluetooth speakers work. I was almost happy that I hit a few snags, as my son and I worked through the build. This helped us to troubleshoot, to experiment, and to communicate. The black wire broke off of the speaker as he was installing it into the box. Saddened, he asked if the speaker was ruined. I pulled out a soldering iron and reattached the wire and lovingly told him “fixed it.” We found issues with the ground row on the breadboard and had to work through that process and we ran into a roadblock with adding the LiquidCrystal_I2C library. I reached out to the customer support and they responded promptly and asked for screenshots. The Creation Crate videos and online resources proved to be exceedingly helpful. My ten-year-old son has now been using this Bluetooth speaker with his iPod Touch to listen to several Imagine Dragon songs. More than just a Bluetooth speaker, education, or a fun activity, this subscription provided a lasting family memory.