Learning by Doing
Since 1972, Elenco has been designing innovative ways to help young students and hobbyists learn about science and technology. This designer and manufacturer of educational toys believes in learning by doing. Elenco toys are often used as teaching aids and can be found in schools throughout the United States.
‘Learn by doing’ is Elenco’s registered trademark and a maxim that Elenco has held for its entire existence, and every product that the company creates is rooted in this principle. “All of our toys and kits have that theme. You learn a concept, usually in science or electronics, by doing something,” says Linda Kramer, vice president and director of marketing at Elenco. “That’s who we are, and it’s behind everything we do.”
The company was established in 1972 by Kramer’s father, Gil Cecchin. Cecchin was the son of Italian immigrants who came to the United States during the Great Depression. “He always wanted to tinker and learn,” says Kramer. “That’s where ‘learn by doing’ comes from.” He learned a bit about toy manufacturing at his first job stenciling the white logo on the side of Radio Flyer wagons, but he found his true passion for engineering when he took a job with Motorola.
Having never attended college, Cecchin learned to be an engineer by working closely with engineers. His love of learning led to him eventually taking a senior engineering position with the company. He holds more than twenty-five patents from his work with Motorola, helping to make color television affordable and available to consumers everywhere.
Elenco grew out of Cecchin’s desire to make technology accessible to everyone. The company began its journey by supplying electronic test equipment to television repair technicians, but it soon offered educational products by mail order with a focus on supplying high school teachers with do-it-yourself (DIY) electronics kits. In the early 1990s, it started to focus on toy design, and by 2000, it had developed the product that would put the company on the map. Snap Circuits® are electronic components that can be snapped together. Traditionally, educational electronics kits would require the user to solder components to a circuit board. Elenco revolutionized the field with a novel system of components that snap together and can be pulled apart, and added CircuitSafe Technology, an internal safety device patented by Elenco and exclusive to Snap Circuits branded products, making them appropriate for children as young as five years old, though most kits start at age eight.
The Snap Circuits product line enabled much younger students and hobbyists to learn about electronics and circuit design and has been an important part of developing the company’s reputation. “It really changed our face to the public,” says Kramer. “People started recognizing us.” Elenco won the respected Toy of the Year (TOTY) award for Snap Circuits from the Toy Industry Association in 2012, and Snap Circuits products have continued to win awards each year throughout the toy industry and from parent and education organizations.
Snap Circuits are a choice electronics teaching aid for teachers throughout the United States. By offering a high quality product at a reasonable price, the company has become a leader in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at the earliest levels, and is continually developing new products.
The prevalence of Elenco products in American schools, and its growing international presence in education, is a significant accomplishment considering the size of the company. It operates from a single office in Wheeling, Illinois and employs just under fifty people in manufacturing, warehousing, and engineering. All of the company’s Snap Circuits products are designed in-house at this facility – a relatively small operation that has made a very big impact.
Elenco products are used in many worldwide elementary and secondary school electronics classes alongside much larger brands like LittleBits® and LEGO®. Despite its modest size, Elenco has been able to remain competitive and survive in the same market as these giants because of the reputation attached to the Elenco name.
Recently, there has been a major resurgence of DIY culture, particularly in the area of hobbyist engineering. This has been dubbed the ‘Maker Movement,’ and it is made up of a community of inventors and hobbyists of all ages who aspire to make things. Elenco is closely connected to the movement, and its educational tools are helping children learn to invent and to make much earlier than ever before.
Beyond Snap Circuits, the company has developed a wide range of other educational products through which students and hobbyists can learn by doing. Snapino, for example, is a programmable microcontroller that can be connected to a Snap Circuit. Users can learn how to program a microcontroller by connecting the Snapino to a computer and writing a program to control a Snap Circuit of their own design. The Snapino is based on the popular Arduino UNO microcontroller so the programming lessons learned by using it are entirely transferable to future learning and serious electronics projects.
The product includes twenty sample programs to help users become acquainted with the Arduino programming language and a number of Snap Circuit modules and components. Using this product, children twelve and up can learn how circuits work and how to write the programs that control them.
WeMake™ is a product line designed for makers twelve and older who like to tinker and want to take their electronics hobby a step beyond Snap Circuits. This product line includes DIY electronics kits such as robotic cars and FM radios, and helps users learn the skills such as soldering that are needed to build them. Within the WeMake line are all the kits, tools, and safety gear a beginner or intermediate level maker needs to continue their journey into the world of electronic engineering.
On August 31st of this year, Elenco launches its newest toy called Snap Circuits® BRIC: Structures. For years, teachers and Elenco customers have been finding clever ways to connect Snap Circuits with building brick toys like LEGO® and Mega Bloks®. The company recognized that there was a need for a product that helped to facilitate this trend, and developed its own patent-pending technology that enables Snap Circuits to be connected to all standard building brick toys. Using BRIC Structures, students and makers can build anything at all that can be made with building brick toys, and use Snap Circuits to bring them to life.
“It’s really the culmination of what our customers and teachers have been asking for,” says Kramer. “They can make a skyscraper or a bridge and make it move, make it go, make it light up with Snap Circuits. It’s more educational than just placing a light inside a building-brick house because it’s actually teaching kids how to make the circuit that makes the elevator move or the light turn on.”
The company unveiled BRIC Structures at the New York Toy Fair in February of this year, where it was recognized by Family Fun Magazine as one of 2018’s Top Toys for Creative Kids, and since then BRIC won the Best Toys for Kids award from the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association. BRIC Structures enables future engineers to learn and invent by building brick structures and designing the circuits to operate them.
Elenco is also a distributor for several well-known worldwide brands such as Edu-Toys, Engino, Tree of Knowledge science kits, OWI robot kits, Timberkits, and more. The company has carefully built a catalogue of products that represent its central principle of learning by doing.
The recent trend of new educational toy startups has helped Elenco demonstrate what its true value is to education and the STEM toy marketplace. With so many new products flooding the space, it is becoming more challenging for teachers and parents to understand what is available and what the right purchasing decision is.
“A lot of these startups have great ideas, but they are often just looking to sell that one idea and at a high price point,” says Kramer. “That’s not what we’re about. We want to make technology accessible to everyone. You can learn it in school, at home. That’s the foundation of what we do and we’ve been doing it a very long time. We want to help people learn, and we want to make it fun, affordable, and for everybody.”
Making its products accessible and affordable has been a key reason that teachers and schools have chosen to build Elenco products into their curriculums. Over more than forty-five years, the company has built a reputation for high-quality products and outstanding customer support. Whether a customer needs replacement parts or technical support, Elenco takes the time to help, and that dedication has set it above competitors especially in the eyes of the teachers who depend on these products. Elenco makes a committed effort to be a reliable partner because the company truly cares about its role in education.
With its Snap Circuits product line the company spawned a whole generation of young engineers. And as technology continues to shape the future, Elenco will continue its mission to help children learn by doing.