When I was about 8 or 9, I got a crystal radio kit for Christmas and it started me fooling around with electronics. I get nostalgic when I smell hot solder even now.
But it also stood me in good stead trying to resurrect my ancient Shivvers dryer this fall.
Maybe some young person in your house would enjoy a geeky gift like that. Here's a suggestion.
I'm thrilled to announce our latest offering from O'Reilly/Make: Books, Make: Electronics, by Charles Platt. This is a book that we've wanted to do for awhile. Many of us at Maker Media have had an interaction that goes something like this: You're at a talk, Maker Faire, or elsewhere, and someone spirits you aside, like they're going to confess to a petty crime or some marital indiscretion. What they want to whisper sheepishly into your ear is that they love MAKE, all of the excitement they see over open source electronics, and the cool kits we sell in the Maker Shed, but they have NO IDEA how electronics work, and the "beginner" books and resources they look at online zoom quickly over their heads and frustrate their efforts to learn. Ultimately, they find themselves too embarrassed to admit their lack of high-tech smarts or to ask questions (which is why they've taken you behind a dumpster to confess their ignorance).
So we decided to make it our mission to create a book that would patiently guide readers into the world of electronics in a way that was fun, clear-spoken, graphical, and experiential. Charles dubbed it "learning by discovery." He has you experimenting with parts right out of the gate, licking batteries (really), breaking and frying stuff, and then you learn what happened and why, the theories behind the parts and processes, and how to do the experiment correctly. For all of those would-be makers and wireheads who've been looking for a book that will finally let them in on all the fun, we made this one for you!
In 340+ pages, Make: Electronics takes you from the most basic aspects of electronic components and theory to essential techniques, such as soldering and using a multimeter, gathering basic tools and setting up a workshop, all the way up to working with integrated circuits, microcontrollers, and building sophisticated devices such as robots. The book is full-color, with hundreds of photos, illustrations, schematics, even fun cartoons. Charles Platt, being the true Renaissance man that he is, did all of this himself. So the book has something of a charming, handmade feel to it. [More]
Of course, if you want to start where I did - back when electrons were square - you can find many kinds of crystal radio kits.
For budding mechanical engineers, how about a model steam engine?
Even in a world of cell phones and video games, DIY toys have appeal to curious minds. And the feeling of accomplishment when it is working knows no decade.