A place where I can talk about my research and other interests -- history, magic, ham radio, technology, and making things.

Friday, June 19, 2009

History Kits

I recently read an article by Rich Mitchell from the November 2007 issue of QST, the magazine of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). Titled Building Kits to Learn, Mitchell explains the modular construction of a small radio transceiver kit known as the Pixie 2. He uses this as an example of the knowledge one can learn from assembling kits. It's not just a matter of putting pieces together -- you can use a kit as a platform to better understand a topic.

I've assembled a few simple electronics kits, and Mitchell's article has inspired me to attempt to construct the Pixie 2 in the manner he describes. He makes a strong case for each of the four stages as providing one with a better understanding of the building blocks of radio fundamentals. In particular, he mentions that this approach is similar to an old radio servicing approach used in testing the stages of radios.

Constructing a kit in this manner includes an attitude about the elments that comprise a radio device, and the components necessary for its proper functioning. I wonder if a similar approach could be used in learning about historic topics. In technological histories, building a device might inform one with a perspective of assembly and the elements of its functioning that a review of the literature on the subject might not address. Using the device, in addition to a sense of satisfaction, might reveal experiential contingencies that weren't apparent in a schematic or theory.

With radio, as in this case, a builder gains experience and understanding of how each stage of the tranceiver functions, and gets the reward of hearing and sending signals from the proper construction and alignment of those elements.

Could a History Kit be put together to help teach a particular topic? What would it include? Could it be made dynamic yet modular so as to incorporate elements of complexity that historians like to analyze; or, would such an approach only apply to seemingly linear topics?


Adam Crymble said...

Wouldn't a box of artifacts that a museum uses to engage school-aged groups count as a history kit? Or are you thinking something that must specifically be built? What about non-tangible history, such as a document? Can you build that?

Devon Elliott said...

Some museum artifact kits count. It depends on what they have users do with the kit. Someone can learn a lot about stone projectile points from a box of them; but they'll learn different things if supplied with a piece of chert and some knapping tools, or in trying to use the points to hit a target. Experimental Archaeology has contributed to the broader field of Archaeology through similar applied approaches.

For me, the interesting thing about the radio kit is that it incorporates an understanding of how radio technology has been conceptualized and, at times, developed by technicians. I could read about this process, but tweaking the actual device through the stages might provide a more comprehensive understanding of it.

For example, I'll be able to hear what the "motorboating" sound is that some have described while trying to get theirs working, and from there be able to recognize that sound, understand what it might mean and how to correct it. Maybe this whole process will shed some light on elements of a localized technological mentalité of radio enthusiasts -- their attitudes, expectations and relationships with the technology they work with.

We don't often interact with technology in these ways. Getting the kit to function properly won't simply be a matter of plugging components into their place. By most accounts I've read, it takes a fair amount of testing and fiddling with it to get it to work properly, but what does that mean? I won't know until I try it.