November 14, 2019

(++++) HEAR, HEAR!

Radio Boombox. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $24.99.

     As the height of gift-giving season approaches, why not consider giving the gift of music? How about music heard through a device that the gift-giver creates on his or her own? How about making the whole thing amusing, functional, interesting-looking, maybe a bit silly, and very much in line with the current emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM subjects? It all sounds like a job for Klutz, that delightful purveyor of “books-plus” crafts projects. And lo and behold, Klutz has developed something that fits the bill perfectly: Radio Boombox, an entry in its “Klutz Maker Lab” series.

     Like all things Klutz (but not klutzy), Radio Boombox contains a fascinating project, all (well, almost all) the items needed to complete it, a super-clear explanatory book saying just what to do and written in nontechnical language that is easy to follow, and plenty of information on the underlying science that makes everything work. Radio is, when you think about it (as Klutz wants you to do), something of a marvel: invisible something-or-others perpetually zipping around in the air that can be plucked out of apparent nothingness and produce sounds. Radio receivers are perfect examples of what are called “black boxes,” not because of their color but because their inner workings are generally unknown to the people who use them. Actually, radios have been a go-to project for curious young people for many decades, from the days of vacuum tubes to those of integrated circuits. And now technology has advanced so far that this Klutz kit contains printed circuit boards – literally printed – that have all the electronic connections necessary to produce a working FM radio. It is, when you think about it, rather astonishing.

     Klutz, however, seeks neither to astonish nor to render the creation of a boombox entirely mundane – it looks for, and finds, a middle ground. The circuitry is as up-to-date as can be: it is extremely light and surprisingly small, and the only reason Radio Boombox has a large form factor is that it contains the pieces needed for the case – which is avowedly “retro-inspired,” since boomboxes are not exactly commonly used at home or carried around these days.

     Radio Boombox is intended for ages eight and up, but this is one project that may be as enthralling for parents as for kids. The instruction book is not long – 32 pages – but it is as clear and complete as usual in Klutz products, and is able to be so compact because the various circuits and stereo FM radio receiver module basically just need to be connected properly, without a lot of wiring and certainly without soldering and other techniques once required for building radio receivers. The book does go beyond assembly instructions, explaining simply and clearly just how a radio works – that is, how it pulls those unseen waves out of the air and interprets them so they turn back into the music that they were at their original sources. Simple-and-clear is a Klutz watchword, and when it comes to Radio Boombox, the truth is that assembly of the case is as complicated as creation of the radio itself, if not more so. The biggest issue in creating the radio is the need for three AAA batteries, which are not included in the Klutz box itself – as usual, Klutz assumes that some things are so common around the house that they need not be supplied, and as usual, Klutz is probably right about that. But be prepared to buy some batteries if you do not already have some that are readily accessible.

     In line with its self-imposed mandate to make science and crafts fun, Klutz goes beyond requiring users of Radio Boombox to connect the receiver module, speaker and battery compartment: the book also includes a few simple, relevant games, which are certainly unnecessary for the basic concepts but may add a little enjoyment to the pleasure of the whole project. It is important for parents who use “Klutz Maker Lab” products to engage their children in the STEM subjects to make it clear that not everything in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is as forthright and easily accomplished as a Klutz project: failing to communicate this can lead to frustration when kids encounter real-world (or just school-world) ideas and experiments that do not fit together as neatly as Klutz crafts do. But at the same time, parents can reinforce the underlying Klutz idea that STEM subjects, whatever complexity and drudgery they may sometimes entail, can also be fun, and can involve discovery and use of some remarkable things, such as invisible radio waves. Parental guidance is suggested for STEM topics, and parental involvement in Radio Boombox will be fun for parents and kids alike. But parents who think their children are ready for some self-guided learning about radio and electronics can feel comfortable letting them create this project on their own – with all the feeling of accomplishment that success with Klutz crafts produces.

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