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Microcontrollers Can Be A Snap

Thanks in no small part to the SILICON CHIP promotion over the last five years, popular and cheap PICAXE micros are widely now considered the best value educational microcontroller. However, motivated pre-teens and fuzzy-eyed seniors who are "keen to learn about micros" may find PICAXE PC board soldering or breadboard circuit assembly too fiddly. So here's a nifty approach that fits a PICAXE-08M micro-controller into the gutted sound module from a colourful "Snap Connector" electronic kitset.

by The Mad Scientist (aka Stan Swan)

Snap Connector kits are globally sold under a variety of names but here in New Zealand they’re known as “Electronic Brain Boxes”. The simplest “80 Experiments” kit costs around $20 from Dick Smith Electronics (NZ). They’re also available from the NSW CSIRO shop (www.csiroshop.com).

Click for larger image
Components in the supplied kits quickly snap together to assemble colourful circuits. Lamps, LEDs, switches, series and parallel connections, motors and even sound and alarm circuitry can be quickly and reliably made by the simplest versions.

Pre-teen kids thrive on them and classroom management is easy, since no tools are needed. That’s right teachers – no tools needed! 

Although this PICAXE conversion is designed around the most basic kit, the approach shows great promise for easing the electronics learner’s transition from toys to tools.
The modification still allows full PICAXE programming (~80 lines of high level code) but only three of the normal five I/Os are now available. That’s normally quite enough for intro work. Some PICAXE-08M channels are limited normally anyway, with channel 0 output only and channel 3 input only. 

Even with just three I/Os applications abound, with sounds, LED flashing, sensor reading, timers, data loggers, simple reaction games, code sending, traffic light simulations and much more – even two-wire serial data communications to other units/PCs are possible. 

Thousands of PICAXE programs have been written over the last five years and many will readily adapt to use here. Aside from youngsters, even sprightly seniors can now handle the setup – you’re never too old to learn about micros! 

Basic electrical circuits included with the snap kits themselves of course can still be used, although (hooray!) those relating to the mindless, noise-making sound module can be now (thankfully) ignored.

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