Introducing Kids (and adults) to AVR Microcontrollers

I spotted a new and unfamiliar (i.e. non-Parallax) microcontroller beginner’s kit at a toy store last week. I looked at it briefly trying to figure out what kind of MCU it used (looked like some sort of Basic Stamp clone), then put it back. I came across the same kit on an electronics website earlier today and did a little more digging. To my surprise the kit is based on an ATTiny2313 on what looks like a removable (put it in your robot!) double-spaced DIP board. The Tiny2313 is my favorite ATTiny, since it has the most I/O pins, and it is the only one with a genuine UART, not just a USI interface (sadly it lacks an ADC, but it does at least have a comparitor). Here’s a beauty shot from a reseller, bigger than any picture the manufacturer has on their site:

The kit is called “Microcontroller: Computer Systems Engineering Kit,” and it looks pretty comprehensive. The Tiny2313 doesn’t have a specific bootloader memory section, but they’ve worked out some way to program it from a serial port, and they had the foresight to throw in a USB to Serial adapter. I would have preferred they go with a more traditional solderless breadboard, but I guess being able to see the continuous metal sockets might be helpful for someone completely new to electronics. It comes with a nice smattering of peripheral components, and a 144 page color manual of experiments. The manufacturer has a picture with the book open, and it looks quite friendly and approachable (I wish my textbooks all looked like this):

So at this point I’m thinking that this looks really sweet, but I’m still concerned that maybe the kit coddles you with pre-made programs, or some sort of icon-based language like Lego-LabView, but then I came across this on their product support page:

[quote]Q: What programming language is used in the Microcontroller kit?
A: A very simple programming language is used. It is not a common language and was created specifically for this kit. It is a mixture of BASIC and ASSEMBLER. Functions can be dragged and dropped from lists into the program window. Prior knowledge of any other programming language is not necessary.[/quote]
Woah! Getting kids up and running with AVRs by writing their own programs in basic with a library of functions to pick from, but at the same time giving them access to the assembler instruction set? Where was this kit when I was 12? For that matter, where was it when I was 21 and suffering through a completely theory based electromechanical systems course?

Anyway, you can find these for ~$120, which is a little too much for me to get one for myself just to find out if it’s as nice as it looks. It says it’s for ages 12 and up, which means I’ll have to wait about a decade before getting them for my nieces, but I bet they would also be a handy way for adults with little background in electronics/programming to get started. I think they’re fairly new (so maybe due for a price-drop) because none of the places selling them seem to have customer reviews yet. I would be very interested in hearing impressions from anyone who has handled one of these kits in person!


P.S. Hey Paul, these guys also make a 10 and up “Genetics & DNA” kit:

[quote]• isolate the DNA from a tomato
• learn about inheritance and how traits are expressed
• build a DNA model
• breed bacteria to experiment with genetic engineering[/quote]
I wonder if they include a sterile lance, you know, for the tomato