Workshops For Timid Solderers

As a hackspace member, it’s easy to fall into the belief that your own everyday skills are universal. Soldering for example. You’ve handled an iron since you were a youngster, the solder bends to your will as a matter of course, and since you see your fellow makers doing the same thing you might imagine that it’s a universal hackspace skill. Everyone can do it, can’t they?

Of course, they can’t. If you weren’t lucky enough to have a parent who tolerated your occasional propensity for acquiring burns on your fingers then you probably won’t have that innate experience with an iron. This extends to people you might expect to have those skills, indeed as an electronic engineering student a couple of decades ago your scribe was surprised to find that the ability to solder was her hotly tradeable skill, amazingly even a lot of EE students couldn’t solder.

So the ability to solder is not as universal as we might expect, and your hackspace will attract plenty of people for whom it is an as-yet-unknown art. What do you do about it? If you are Vancouver Hackspace, you run a workshop whose participants are introduced to soldering through building a simple AM radio. The kit itself is not too special, it looks like one of the Elenco educational kits, but it is what the workshop represents that is important. A hackspace lives or dies by how it shares its skills, and Vancouver’s workshop is a fantastic piece of community engagement. We’d like to see more spaces doing this kind of thing.

So, perhaps it’s time to put our money where our mouth is. How difficult would it be to run a hackspace soldering workshop for the uninitiated? Assuming your space is used to the mechanics of running events, the challenge is to find for each participant a soldering iron, some solder, and a radio or other kit without breaking the bank. An ideal budget from where this is being written in the UK would be £20 (about $29), into which a Chinese kit from AliBaba or similar and a cheap iron kit could be fitted. Some work to decipher the Chinese instructions with the help of an overseas student member and to write an English manual, and we’d be ready to go. If this comes together we’ll report back on whether the non-solderers of our hackspace successfully learned the craft.

We recently featured a similar educational initiative, a course at Swansea Hackspace teaching robotics through an Arduino robot. We would like to encourage this kind of thing, what is your hackspace doing in this line?

A Partwork As A Hackspace Course

If you watch a lot of TV just after Christmas, you will be familiar with partworks. Or at least, you will if you live in the part of the world this is being written from, and if you aren’t you should count yourself lucky. The premise is simple: buy this magazine once a month, and in each issue you will receive a fresh component which you can assemble over time into a beautiful model of a galleon, a Lancaster bomber, or a patchwork quilt.

The value for money offered by such publications is highly suspect, the quality of the finished item is questionable, and though the slick TV adverts make them sound alluring you’re much better off buying the Airfix model kit or just cutting your own patches.

There’s a partwork that caught our eye which may be worth a second look. It’s probably unfair on reflection to call it a partwork though as it doesn’t deserve to be associated with the scammier end of the publishing business. Swansea Hackspace are currently running a six-week all-inclusive course designed to introduce the participant to robotics through a step-by-step assembly of an Arduino based robot. Tickets were £60 ($85) to hackspace members, and all parts were included in that price.

At first sight it might seem a little odd to feature a course. It’s not a hack, you’ll say. And though the little Arduino robot is a neat piece of kit, you’d be right. It’s hardly ground-breaking. But the value here doesn’t lie in the robot itself, but in the course as an exercise in community engagement. If you are involved in the running of a hackspace perhaps you’ll understand, it can sometimes be very difficult to persuade timid visitors to come along more than once, or to join the space. Hackspaces can be intimidating places, after all.

The Swansea course holds the promise of addressing that issue, to say to an interested but non-expert newcomer that they needn’t worry; if they have an interest in robotics then here’s a way to learn. This community engagement and spreading of knowledge reveals an aspect of the hackspace movement that sometimes remains hidden, and it’s something we’d like to see more of in other spaces.

Cornell ECE 4760 lecture videos now online

Whenever we hear about ECE 4760 we take notice. That’s because a ton of fantastic hacked together projects have resulted from the class. It’s offered at Cornell University and focuses on designing projects based on microcontrollers. We look at it as a ‘how to connect everything to your microcontroller’ guide. The good news for you is that 34 lecture videos from the Spring 2012 ECE 4760 class are now available to watch for free online. When coupled with the course webpage itself (which outlines the reading, labs, and homework) this turns into an opportunity to work through the entire course on your own schedule.

If you need a brief preview, here’s a couple random things we’ve seen as final projects from the course: a digital saxophone, a handwriting decoder, and a haptic feedback unit for building your biceps.

We’re still working our way through the Nand2Tetris project, but we’re putting these lectures on our watch list for later.

[via Reddit]

Programming Tetris by first building a logic gate, then a computer, then…

Hone your fundamental understanding of computer systems by completing this online course called NAND to Tetris. The idea is to develop each fundamental unit that goes into making computer programs a reality. This starts with logic gates, which are put together into modules that eventually become a functioning computer. From there you need an operating system,  a compiler, and eventually you’ll be playing a game of Tetris which you programmed yourself.

It’s certainly not an easy journey, but if you have a computer at your disposal you should be able to make it all the way through the course. There’s a software suite which includes a hardware simulator so that the computer you’re building can be assembled using HDL instead physical components.

The concept is discussed in this TED talk given by [Shimon Schocken]. It is also embedded after the break and in addition to the NAND to Tetris project he shows off some self learning software on the iPad. To us it seems very much like the learning software [Neal Stephenson] envisions in the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer from his Diamond Age novel.

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