Saturday, 28 February 2015

Arduinos, Galileos & Edisons

Students create astonishing work with Arduino.
Instead of electronics being something that is
done to them, Arduino lets them author their
relationship with electronics.
I'm a big fan of the Arduino microcontroller.  This tiny, inexpensive board plugs into your computer via a usb cable and lets you create circuits for lights, sounds, sensors or pretty much anything else you can think of.  You then write (or paste) some simple code into a window on your computer and send it to the board to have the lights flash, or music play, or have sensors sense.

As an introduction to how circuits work it doesn't get much better.  Because the coding you're doing has immediate physical results, it also makes for a tangible, tactile introduction to programming too.  You can find arduino boards for about ten bucks a pop.  With another five bucks in LEDs, wiring and other bits and pieces, you've got a basic electronics and coding lab that suits both tactile and non-tactile learners.  You could put together a comprehensive class set for the price of a single iMac.  If your school is chucking any electronics, suddenly you find yourself recycling lasers out of cdroms and wiring out of computers to expand your collection.

Since Arduino is open source, a variety of support programs have popped up around it.  Fritzing helps students create professional looking wiring plans, and 123d Circuits lets you create virtual Arduino projects before you plug in a single wire.  If you're wondering how tricky Arduino might be for younger students, 123d Circuits would be a great way to test feasibility for free.

My favorite part of Arduino comes after the introduction (we use Oomlout's fantastic ARDX introduction projects.  Students work through these and get familiar with how the Arduino works and the many components it can work with.  The real magic comes when they see how easy it is to try things on Arduino.  The summative for the unit is a self directed project where students are encouraged to experiment, fail and document what they're doing.  It's a great introduction to the engineering process and, for many students, the first time they are rewarded for failure at school (just know why it didn't work and find a way forward - the engineering process is intellectual resilience codified).

We've recently expanded our electronics ecosystem by getting a couple of super-Arduinos.  Intel has thrown its might behind the open source movement and created a couple of very interesting Arduino related products.

The unboxing of our Galileo created a big stir
amongst the senior computer technology students.

The Intel Galileo is an Arduino board on steroids.  With 
Microsoft also throwing itself behind this, you can actually have a version of Windows running on the Galileo!  We've already done so much with the Arduino, I can't wait to see what we can put together with the Galileo.
The size of an SD card, the Edison is tiny & powerful

The Intel Edison is the other experimental piece of kit we just got in yesterday.  It's the size of an SD card, but is a multi-core computer with built in wifi and bluetooth.  This tiny Edison is at the heart of the Nixie drone - an astonishing wearable/flyable drone camera that looks like magic.

Both the Galileo and the Edison are about $100 (about 10x the cost of a basic Arduino board), so we're going to see if they are ten times as awesome.  I suspect they will both tax senior computer tech students as they try and understand what these new boards can do.

There hasn't been an easier time to get into basic electronics.  With the open source movement creating lush ecosystems of compatible components, you'll find it easier than ever to put tangible electronics experiences in front of students.  In a world where electronics are something being done to society, wouldn't it be nice to teach students how to author that influence?