Repair Teaches Many Things

While working with youth organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, I have the opportunity to see many items purchased by parents for their kids to use without concern for the durability of these items. When young men and ladies get out into the “Great Outdoors” it is really amazing how fragile our technologies prove to be after a day or two backpacking or camping.

Recently, while we were reviewing camping gear to check for tears and other damage, a great example of this fagility became apparent in a fairly neat little rechargeable flashlight that used a small hand-crank to recharge an onboard battery so that steady work on the dynamo would provide light for an evening’s activities. This was a minor enough item, though it was amazing when compared with the carbide lanterns I used as a kid when caving and camping. Unfortunately, although the LEDs and circuitry worked the flashlight could no longer hold a charge no matter how long or fast the crank was turned, so it was headed for the wastebin when one of my former Electronics Merit Badge participants asked if it was worth repairing.

Flashlight open showing circuitry and LiPo cells

A few minutes later, the culprit was laid bare before our eyes while I discussed what each component’s task was within the flashlight’s mechanism. The problem was the LiPo button cell, which was intended to be rechargeable but had been misused and could no longer store a charge. As the kids used my multimeter to test the switches and other obvious sources of problem, I was able to locate the same type of cell (LIR2032) locally for about $15 – roughly the cost of the flashlight itself. A few more minutes’ time and I had a source for the cells at 2 buttons for $3 with a $2 shipping charge.

Rechargeable LiPo button power cells (old and new)

The Scouts enjoyed identifying the nonfunctional cell, studying it under a magnifying glass to identify its marks, and then searching out sources for replacements with as much enthusiasm as they showed searching an animal’s burrow from its tail and claw marks during my tracking classes – technology being far more familiar than the outdoors for many who had not taken part in my earlier woodcraft outings. Once we had identified the source, I arranged for a pair of the small cells to be delivered before the next week’s meeting.

The Light after a battery-ectomy and a few minutes cranking for a charge.

During the next meeting, my previous students who were familiar with soldering and circuits installed the new cell, reassembled the cleaned and oiled dynamo and cranked the handle for the recommended time. After this, the light came on and shone brightly to illustrate that their efforts were successful! Now, I have all sorts of small devices being brought in to see if we might be able to repair them before they are simply thrown out – repair and sustainability are wonderful educational topics for our young learners and a few have even thought up innovations to try as they work on Inventing Merit Badges for next year!

Even seeming trash can provide tremendous opportunities to teach mechanical linkages or electrical circuitry to eager students, and learning the lesson that not everything that is not working right now needs to be simply thrown out and purchased anew is a very important lesson for kids and adults alike.

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