I get asked some variant of “what is the first thing I should buy for my classroom/makerspace?” almost every day! It’s great people are planning for maker-greatness, but there is some confusion out there because Arduinos and 3D printers have become the “go to” purchases for maker classrooms and other learning spaces.
In my opinion, neither of these would be my first choice for a beginning makerspace, especially one on a limited budget.
Today I got the question from a middle school, “We were going to get some MaKey MaKeys, but my principal heard you can buy an Arduino for $8. That means we can have a classroom set of 30 for less than $250. Is this a good idea? I don’t have a background in electronics or programming.”
Here’s my answer:
Buying an Arduino board alone is just the start. You will have to find or purchase everything else you need part by part – an Arduino is useless without inputs (sensors, buttons, knobs) and outputs (motors, lights, speakers, displays). Depending on your level of electronics knowledge, this could be easy or very tricky! You can fry the Arduino if you connect the wrong parts.
We recommend purchasing kits for first timers so that you get the exact parts you need for a set of experiments. After you use them with students, you can see what you need in the long run. Here’s one kit that’s good for beginners from Sparkfun Electronics (be sure to get an educator discount).
LAST BUT NOT LEAST – I’m not sure that Arduino is your best place to start. The coding environment will be a challenge for beginner programmers. (Now, there may be a student or two who will just “get it” immediately – but that’s not evidence that it’s the best way to start everyone). I still would consider MaKey MaKey to get your feet wet, or if you really want to tackle sensors and motors, I would look at the Hummingbird Robotics Kit.
The Hummingbird Kit comes with the exact motors, lights, and sensors you need, plus is configured so there is no chance of blowing anything out if things are mis-connected. The Hummingbird can be used with the Scratch programming language, which will be MUCH more accessible for MOST students. It can also be programmed with Python, Processing, and even works as an Arduino with the Arduino programming language, so you are getting the best of both.