great robots & toys
from the space age

Electronics Learning Lab

Forrest Mims was the co-founder of MITS Inc., which in 1975 introduced the first microcomputer, the Altair 8800.
Was it named "Altair" after Robby's home planet, Altair IV, in the movie Forbidden Planet? Who knows?
In 2008, Discover magazine named him one of the "50 Best Brains in Science".

Digital Electronics Lab

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Forrest Mims III

Above: left. The Radio Shack Electronics Learning Lab box makes no mention that it's also a digital logic course. Apart from that, it accurately portrays the lab.

middle. The lab console is a dazzling bit of work. It comes packed in this sturdy cardboard box, which can also be used as a tray for parts while working. The console is a huge incentive to learning electronics, and functions as a control panel.
At the top left is a slide switch for power, provided by 6 AA batteries. Along the top are two rows of spring terminals, used to connect to an 8 segment LED, 10 individual LEDs, and an analog meter (0-1 DC milliamps) which can be configured to read various quantities. Down the left side are three very smoothly operating potentiometers, which are used as volume controls and to smoothly increase voltage. Along the bottom (front) is a DPDT (double pole, double throw) switch, four blue momentary contact pushbuttons,  Next are connections for a relay (not shown) and a transformer (shown through a window). Down the right side, under the meter, are a photoresistor (photocell), buzzer, and speaker.
I've saved the best for last. That white rectangle in the middle is a breadboard, which is the way pros layout and test a circuit. This means you can insert the resistors, transistors, and other included parts into the holes, along with jumper wires to connect them. The board is already set up with contacts providing six different votlages for various experiments.
What kind of parts do you get? How about dozens of resistors, about 30 capacitors, 5 diodes, red and green LEDs (in addition to those already mounted in the console), a ceramic earphone, 6 transistors,  and 16 integrated circuits, all packed in anti- static foam in three separate plastic boxes.  Not to mention two 96 page lab workbooks. If this doesn't make you want to learn electronics, nothing will.

right. Forrest Mims III,  Super  genius, to paraphrase Wile E. Coyote.

Is This Dexter's Lab?

$60 to learn electronics? It costs at least $500 at a tech school, so how well does the Shack's learning lab stack up? Pretty well, and for a number of reasons. This kit was designed from the ground up by Radio Shack's wunderkind designer, Forrest Mims III, who also writes their project books and has developed a few other kits. The plus of this kit is that Forrest takes a hands-on approach using the same materials you'd use if you were a pro designer or a hobbyist with a fat wallet.

That means a breadboard you can insert parts into, and a power supply with six different voltage outputs, precut and stripped wire jumpers to connect the parts with, and a control console with switches, variable controls, lights (LEDs), a 7-segment LED readout, an electonic meter, a buzzer, speaker, and photocell to build all sorts of electronic projects.

What sort of parts would you plug into the breadboard? How about 19 integrated circuits, 6 transistors, four diodes, about 30 capacitors, red and green LEDs, about fifty resistors, and a few more miscellaneous parts? Price just one integrated circuit at Radio Shack and you'll see what a good deal this kit is. Add a 96 page project book, and you've got a very decent electronics lab.

But none of that hints at what makes Forrest's design so unique. Besides the Basic Electronics workbook, there's a second 96 page workbook called Digital Logic Projects. This lab is also a complete hands-on course in digital electronics: binary code, logic gates, the theory and basic circuits of a computer. That's when this kit gets really fun. Then there's Forrest's unique approach. The books are hand-drawn and hand-written, with a step-by-step checklist to assemble each of the 200 projects, but also pictorial diagrams for each circuit, and how to translate that to a skematic, the standard way to draw electronic circuits. From the first circuit on, you can start deviating and experimenting, Dexter style. I wonder what would happen if I did this? Forrest invites this approach, warning you in advance what might really blow something out, but then letting you have at it.

The only con is the same as the pro: that this is the real thing, so you do need to discharge the static before handling the CMOS chips (by touching a large metal object), and keep the chips in their conductive foam container (included). Forrest hits on all these standard precautions and it pays to read his books closely. The box says this lab is for ages ten and up, but a budding Dexter a bit younger could probably handle it with some assistance. A magnifying glass is helpful to read the tiny parts markings, and a tweezer assists putting chips in the breadboard.

There is another electronics kit called the Sensor Lab, also by Forrest Mims III and costing a little less, and easily confused with the Electronics Learning Lab. One kit that it won't be confused with is a really different brainchild of the inventive designer called Sky and Sun Monitoring Station. It's very difficult to figure out what this even is without opening it, but once you do, you find out it's the real deal. Mind boggling as it sounds, for $30 jr. scientists can get their hands on real stuff and really do science. This is a science fair in a box and includes a guide for home schooling and students, along with internet satellite monitoring links. Once again you get an attractively designed control console, this time to measure air mass, water vapor, and different wavelengths of sun radiation (safely), displayed on an LCD readout. A few extras like a compass and level, viewing filters, and a sun angle scale are also included. Team this up with one of the electronic thermometer/barometers from Radio Shack and you've got a really good weatherstation and endless fun for amateur meteorologists. Look for our forthcoming review.

Above: left:  Close up of breadboard. Unlike some electronics kits, the breadboard construction allows the lab to use regular, off the shelf parts, like the resistor and LED shown above. 75 jumper wires like the white one above, color-coded by length, are also included.
right: As with his Engineers' Notebooks series for Radio Shack, Forrest draws every page of the lab books by hand. He also built and tested every circuit. On page 14 in the Basic Electronics workbook, he contrasts two ways of drawing a circuit: as a pictorial view, or as a circuit diagram, shown right, below.
Below: The lab includes two 96 page workbooks, jammed with projects, some of which can be left built, and adapted into the next one. If you build every project, by the end of the books, you'll know electonics. The Radio Shack clerk told me that an instructor had been in just before me and bought five Learning Labs for a tech school. Our verdict of the Learning Lab: two thumbs waaaaay up.

Workbook I

Workbook II

Above: left: The binary system provides the basis for digital logic, as Forrest shows in Workbook II, Digital Logic Projects.
right: On page 54, you build a binary adder, the basis for the digital computer.

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