Soldering Projects as an Introduction to STEM
Soldering Projects as an Introduction to STEM
Over the years I have volunteered at the LVL1 Hackerspace, a free-to-the-public makerspace in Louisville, Kentucky, I have been involved in a wide variety of STEM outreach events. To date I have personally seen the largest successes teaching youth and adults to solder. Soldering is one of those tasks that seems hard and thus is popularly perceived to be difficult, however it’s actually quite easy… Especially if you understand the basics of what’s happening and how it is different than other forms of sticking things together. Because it is actually quite easy students can walk away from a soldering workshop with something they made and with a confidence boost in their ability to be a Maker.
Over the years I’ve lost track of the number of folks I’ve taught to solder; I’m confident it is well over a thousand. I have taught using a variety of kits and projects and I’ve learned what works better and what slows students down. This has led to me co-founding a company to produce high quality kits designed with beginner students in mind (more on that in a moment).
As I mentioned a moment ago soldering is different from other forms of sticking things together and so it requires that the instructor re-frame the operation in the student’s minds in order to lead them to success. Soldering is not like glue or tape where pressure is helpful to get things to stay together; in fact pressure will give your students a bad time. It’s important to teach students that soldering is all about heat; solder wants to flow to the hottest areas and so heat must be applied event to both the pad and the leg of the part that is being soldered to the PCB. Not applying the heat correctly is one of the easy mistakes beginners make that, once corrected, leads them to success. The solder is then introduced on the opposite side from the heat (the soldering iron) and flows across the parts to be combined (both heated by the iron or there may be a bad connection) to the iron. The student should then be directed to remove the solder-strand first and the heat (iron) last.
Some considerations to keep in mind when evaluating kits for your STEM courses:
- Number of different components
- Complexity of the PCB (printed Circuit Board; the base of the soldering kit) design
- Size of the soldering holes and pads in the PCB
- The final product
The number and type of components can influence the time and age-range of the project; a kit with 9 different parts will take longer to do than one with 11 if there are only 3 types in the latter. Each different part is its own step but if 9 of your parts are all identical LEDs they can be done in a single instructional step. Lower complexity makes it easier to avoid mistakes like putting in a part backwards or in the wrong spot.
The more complicated the PCB is the longer and harder it is to build the kit. This has a direct impact on age range and project duration. For first-timers and youth I highly recommend a simpler kit with a simpler PCB layout and a lower number of different parts. This keeps things easy and the duration of the project within their comfort zone.
An often overlooked consideration in modern soldering kits are the soldering pads themselves. Often the holes they drill are just barely large enough for the components. Sometimes they are a touch too small! This leads to legs being bent as students struggle to insert the components making everything more difficult than it needs to be and building frustration rather than satisfaction. On the other hand a hole that is too large lets solder drip through the PCB which can be unsightly or, on particularly badly designed PCBs, a short on the front of the board.
Bordering the hole itself is the soldering pad, where the solder connects the PCB to the component. These pads are often too small for beginners. Small pads are harder to rest the soldering iron on as they heat up the pad and the part in order to form a good solder joint. Small pads that are close together are also much easier for students to bridge together, leading to a failure in their project (electricity, like water, takes the shortest and easiest route thus bridges will cause the kit to not perform correctly). I have also seen pads that did not match the silkscreen indications on the PCB in one amusingly bad kit.
The final consideration I put forth is the final product itself; is it something your students will want? Will they be excited to make it? Does it have broad gender appeal and fit your student age range? In short: is it cool?
Now that I’ve told you all about how to find a good soldering kit for your STEM program I’d like to take a moment and tell you about the kits we’ve been developing at Mr Blinky Bling. My co-founder and I have taught soldering all over the region; we get invited to several events a year where we volunteer to teach adults and youth to solder and we teach many classes locally every year as well. We’ve taught folks using dozens of kits over the years and after a couple of years of talking about what we liked and didn’t like about these kits we decided to develop our own. I was invited to speak at the Bowling Green Idea Festival last year and we decided to bring our first kit there to teach the youth attendees. Though we were only able to teach kids from around 9 am to around 3 pm we ended up teaching more than 80 kids to solder. We had kids skip lunch and a solid line all day until they literally started busing them home. It was a smashing success and we decided to focus on bright LED STEM kit development due to our unexpectedly good results (soldering programs we’ve volunteered at previously were nowhere near that popular).
Due to this success we have developed LED-based soldering kits that both kids and adults of all genders consider “cool.” One of the first questions we get when visiting a class to teach soldering is “Do we get to keep these?!?” (depending on whether or not the first question is if they can have our “megabling” wearable LED based projects we wear to events).
We have developed custom silkscreen art on our PCBs to make it easier for students to find their own system for orientating the LEDs (which must go in the PCB in a specific direction); we have 4 different visual indicators they can use depending on their preference. This makes it easier for students with different learning styles to place the components. We use a larger hole that is easy to insert components in without being so large as to cause problems on the front of the board. We use larger pads that are easier to heat up and have custom pads on the back that discourage solder bridges by drawing excess solder (one of the simple mistakes beginners make) away from the center. These combine to make it easier for students to gain confidence as they correctly assemble their kits; I’ve watched dozens of folks (both youth and adults) go from being scared of soldering to confident they can solder anything they want to and frankly that is why we do this.
Our goal is to make kits that are designed with the beginning student in mind making it easier for STEM programs to reach their students and make them into Makers. We offer a variety of kits to suite various price points, time and age limitations, and even some moderately complex kits for advanced classes and adults.
Oh, and there’s one last difference between our kits and others on the market; we will happily put your logo on your kits so the students remember that they took your class and not who you bought the kits from. We do charge a one-time design fee for this service, starting at $50. We’re putting together a web-based tool that will allow you to customize kits yourself as well. We also can create completely customized kits at your request, again with a one-time design and setup fee.
There are plenty of great kits out there but watch out for the bad ones. Together we can train a Nation of Makers.