Teaching Kids to Troubleshoot Electronics, Projects & Everything

Tim ZieglerSchools & Makerspaces

Circuit With Scribbles

If you teach kids in any way – as a STEM educator, a parent, a friend – one of the most valuable skills you can teach is how to troubleshoot.

Troubleshooting? You just … figure stuff out, right? It turns out that learning this skill is more complicated, but the results can last a lifetime.

Not only is troubleshooting an increasingly valuable tool to use at school as hands-on learning becomes more common, but I would argue that troubleshooting is the best way to learn anything: Try something, assess if it’s working, troubleshoot problems if not, iterate to fix those problems, and then repeat the process until you have mastery (or at least you get the dern thing working).

At Circuit Scribe we talk about troubleshooting in the context of electronics education, but this discussion applies to getting past any problem that can be solved with puzzling things out and iteration.

You Might Be The First Troubleshooting Coach They Ever Had

Be aware that many people have never been taught how to solve problems or fix things. No matter what “it” is, if it breaks we throw it out and buy another one. We are a society that wants complete answers at the ready.

You have a chance here to promote the idea of troubleshooting as a powerful ally for getting through life. Lots of things don’t work when you first try them. It’s easy to become discouraged and even blame yourself – have you ever seen people who have computer problems and say, “oh, it’s me, I’m no good at computers,” instead of the more correct “hey, this interface is terrible and I can’t get it to work”?

In leading students through this process, to me the most important principles are:

  • Don’t give them the answer
  • Discuss the process
  • Include time to think and take breaks
  • Manage the emotional journey

Let’s break it down:

Don’t Give the Answer

This is hard:

A kid can’t get something to work and you’re helping out. You can see the problem clear as day, and everything in you is screaming to show them what the answer is.

Fight your instinct here! The very foundation of troubleshooting is training the young person to solve their own problems. Lead them to the answer with questions.

Bad: “Look, the circuit you drew has a break in it right here, you need to redraw that part. Here, gimme that pen, I’ll do it for you!”

Good: “Hm, that’s not working is it. What do you think the problem might be? What do we know about how circuits work?”

(As an aside, the “How to Talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk” book for kids and the book for teens are fantastic guides for effective communication.)

Notice how the right line of questions can steer them toward step-by-step thinking. Follow-up questions are important too. The game for you is to think of questions that lead them through the process of discovering the answer with their own thinking and their own power to look things up.

Here’s a good list of tips to remember when you’re asking questions, from Washington University.

  • Give students time to think and formulate responses
  • Wait for students to finish an idea before interjecting
  • Show interest in all answers
  • Redirect and guide wrong answers towards a correct one
  • Develop responses that will keep students thinking

Teach the Process

Break it into Parts

Any system can be broken down into main parts, and troubleshooting each part is a matter of following logical steps.

Examples of breaking down problems into main parts: While fixing a lawnmower motor, you know every gas engine needs fuel, air, and a spark in order to run. There will be signs about which of those are working as expected. Find the place where the system is failing.

Every electrical circuit needs power, a conductive circuit (wire or, in our case, conductive ink), and a component like a light, buzzer, or motor that does some work. What can you tell about the point of failure?

Test Parts of the Whole

Since you’ve broken your system down into parts, test each one individually. If you have a circuit with an LED that isn’t lighting up, the problem could be the battery, the circuit, or the LED itself. You can test the LED by directly connecting it to another battery that you know works. You can test the battery the same way. If both the battery and the LED work, then you know it’s the circuit itself that has a break in it.

Learn to Learn

The beauty of our era is that research is at our fingertips wherever we are. But knowing how to search effectively for answers can be an art. When troubleshooting inevitably leads to an unknown – look it up! And even better, coach your students in the finer skills of Googling and other research.

Manage the Emotional Journey

Getting from start to finish on a project always feels like it’s going to be a straight line when you start out. But it’s much more like a spiral toward the end solution, with diversions, dead ends, and often frustration along the way. (Big projects also have a tendency to periods of exceptional productivity and others of almost inexplicably slow and spinning-of-wheels, both of which may visit you at any time at all.)

It’s really important in coaching troubleshooting to consider the emotional journey. It takes a lot of mental effort to dive into this process, particularly if it’s new to you.

Even seasoned project-doers hit walls that are Just. So. Frustrating. Share this with your young learners. Find ways to listen to their emotions when they’ve hit a wall and want to quit. Sometimes you have to take a break in order to be ready to come back to face a hard solution. The first step is being aware that this is hard, and managing emotions with intentionality.

Useful problem-solving includes times of great focus, periods of daydreaming, and complete breaks to give your brain a recharge. Remember to include times for kids to take breaks or spend what looks like unproductive time daydreaming.