The official project site is hosted by Georgia Tech. Click here to see it.
Electronic toolkits are all the rage as part of a STEM curriculum. From LEGO Mindstorms, to GoldieBlox, to simple Arduino kits, researchers pour considerable resources into developing the most effective learning tools for a young audience. Older adults have largely been left out of this DIY-electronics “boom,” even as we rush to develop digital devices with simple controls and big buttons and offer “Intro to Facebook” classes at senior centers.
So, why would older adults be interested in using an electronic toolkit?
In this project, I offer the following arguments:
1. Unlike children, older people have years of experience practicing a variety of hobby and craft skills. Electronics kits mesh very well with analog craft and hobby kits, meaning that users can select the activities they already find appealing and extend them with digital components.
2. Older adults may be more comfortable doing things (literally) “by hand.” Using a computer and a mouse involves several levels of abstraction, while physical computing allows the user to manipulate the components themselves. The process may be familiar to anyone who’s ever repaired a household appliance.
3. It’s a unique form of personal enrichment and a great way to exercise the mind. Users have expressed delight at completing a project that would impress a grandchild or provide an opportunity for collaboration.
The Maker movement encourages people to become creators rather than just users. It’s empowering to know some basics about how your electronics work and to apply that knowledge in your own project. It can be a form of personal expression or a practical way to customize an existing gadget. There’s no reason why retirees should be left out.
Over the last year, I’ve designed a low-cost, open source kit specifically for an older audience. Rather than basing the kit around the popular Arduino Uno microcontroller, I altered an Adafruit Gemma (only $7 each), creating a color-coded system of snap-able wires. I made similar adjustments and hacks to the breadboards and LEDs, in an effort to make the kit simpler and more accessible.
The kit comes with a paper guide and several different inputs and outputs to use with the Gemma. It’s designed to be used in a one-hour workshop setting with a knowledgeable facilitator. The goal is to introduce the workshop participants to the toolkit and provide the resources for them to continue exploring physical computing.
Currently, I’m in the second round of testing the kit. I plan to make the kit design and written materials available online, or to possibly develop the kit into a product that can be used in senior centers and retirement communities.