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Circuit Cubes make engineering basics a snap for kids

The best part: They connect to your Lego bricks too.

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Kids who fall in love with technology and engineering have never had it better. There's no shortage of websites and tutorial videos and hardware kits meant to teach them the fundamentals of crafting their very own gadgets, but I'd argue few are as elegant -- or as fun -- as Tenka Labs' Circuit Cubes. They're tiny modules laden with magnets, batteries, sensors and other fun little components, but since they're cubes, they allow players to build complex, multifunctional structures in three dimensions. Imagine a mash-up between LittleBits and Lego and you're on the right track.

Gallery: Hands-on: Circuit Cubes | 5 Photos

In fact, the Cubes have more in common with Lego than just their build-friendly concept. Each of them is designed to fit connect perfectly to standard Lego blocks, meaning kids (or you, or anyone) can build even more elaborate structures by taking a couple kits and smashing them all together. Tenka Labs' booth in Eureka park was a testament to how seemingly simple it is to combine Circuit Cubes and Lego bricks -- a tiny AT-AT-inspired walker lumbered around as though it was searching for the Rebel base on Hoth, and next to it sat a contraption built by a sixth-grade girl that ran through messages written on a loop of paper.

What's really neat about the Circuit Cubes is that they subtly teach kids the basics of designing electronics. Peer closely enough at some of these blocks and you'll see some silver lines etched into them -- those represent the flow of current. Let's say you're trying to build a simple noisemaker. You'd attach a battery block to a switch to a tiny speaker so the whole thing doesn't just blare at you non-stop. If you don't orient the switch properly when you connect it (like I did the first time I tried) the current won't pass from the battery through switch block so the speaker will never turn on. The fix takes mere moments, but it imparts an important lesson in circuit design.

I've played with a handful of similar kits in the past (many times at CES, no less), and I can't remember the last time I've had as much fun piecing little doodads together. Granted, my creations were basic at best, but there's a very specific kind of joy that comes with working out the right sequence and seeing some hardware do exactly what you hoped it would. Alas, co-founders Nate McDonald and John Schuster couldn't tell me when the first Circuit Cubes kits would launch; all they said was "soon." After a relaxing time hanging out at their booth and building stuff, though, I'm tempted to say these will be worth the wait.

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