Friday Hack Chat: Making Electronics for Education

For this week’s Hack Chat on, we’ll be talking with AnnMarie Thomas about making electronics for education. There’s a huge intersection between electronics and education, and whether you’re designing robots for a FIRST team or designing a geometry curriculum around 3D-printed objects, there’s a lot electronics can teach students.

AnnMarie Thomas is an associate professor at the School of Engineering and the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas. She’s the founder of the Playful Learning Lab, and along with her students she’s created Squishy Circuits. AnnMarie is the author of Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation. Basically, if you’re looking for someone who knows how to make an educational product, you can’t do any better.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’ll be talking about how to define how technology and education can intersect. There are ways to define a concept, build and sell an educational product, and how to find a market for a product. If you’ve ever wanted to know what goes into getting students to dive into electronics, this is the Hack Chat you have to sit in on.

Oh, AnnMarie is also a judge for this year’s Hackaday Prize. Neat.

Also on deck for this week’s Hack Chat will be Tindie. Tindie is Supplyframe’s (Hackaday’s parent company) answer to the question, ‘where should I sell my hardware product’. Think of it as ‘Etsy for electronics’, but with less furniture made out of pallet wood, but paradoxically more products that require a California prop 65 warning. Isn’t electronics fun?

Here’s How To Take Part:

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hack Chat group messaging. This Hack Chat will take place at noon Pacific time on Friday, July 21st. Confused about where and when ‘noon’ is? Here’s a time and date converter!

Log into, visit that page, and look for the ‘Join this Project’ Button. Once you’re part of the project, the button will change to ‘Team Messaging’, which takes you directly to the Hack Chat.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Gateway to Metal Casting

Casting is an exciting and very useful pastime, but it’s not exactly common these days. That’s a problem whether you’re just getting started or have been doing it for years: everyone can use the advice of another. Fear not! The US Department of Energy is here to help with the Industrial Metal’s Program’s Metal Casting cornucopia.

Although not strictly a hack, this is certainly a facilitator of hacks and any experienced user would do themselves some good by perusing the site. Click on the maps to find complex issues presented remarkably well for papers at this level of rigor. Seriously, check them out.

However, since these papers go into such depth, we can’t really say the material is beginner friendly. That’s not to say it would be bad for a newbie to read through, just that it might be a bit discouraging. But, if you need to figure out where to start in the maze of molds and sand and molten metal, we might have some articles that might help you out.

Do y’all know of any good casting resources on the interwebs? If so, leave ’em in the comments!

Thanks [RunnerPack] for sending this in.

Hackaday Prize Entry: What The Flux

Electromagnetism is the most difficult thing teach. Why is electromagnetism hard to teach? Well, when you’re asking a ‘why’ question (obligatory Richard Feynman video)

[Adam Smallcomb] might not be able to explain electromagnetism with perfect clarity, but he does have an idea to give students a hands-on feel for electrons and magnets. He’s building an Electromagnetic Teaching Aid that turns 30 gauge wire, springs, Lego, and bits of metal into a toolset for understanding magnets, solenoids, current, and magnetic fields.

The devices explained via [Adam]’s toolkit include a DC motor, stepper motor, speaker, solenoid, relay, transformer, microphone, and generator. That’s not to say [Adam] is building all these devices – a DC motor is just a generator in reverse, a relay is a solenoid with more electrical connections, and everything in this toolkit is basically just wire and magnets.

So far, [Adam] has a bunch of interesting applications for magnets, wire, and Lego including a DIY stepper motor and a nifty little tool that measures magnetic flux with a Hall effect sensor. Will it teach schoolkids electromagnetism? Very few things could, but at least this little toolkit will allow students to intuit electromagnetism a little better.

Air Quality Sensors in Every Classroom

One of the first electronics projects for the aspiring hobbyist is wiring a sensor of some sort to a microcontroller, and then doing something useful with the new information. [Brock] has taken this type of gateway project and turned it into a way to get his students involved and familiar with electronics. His take on an air quality meter accomplishes both of these goals, and hopefully helps turn all of his students into the next generation of hackers.

The bill of materials is pretty straightforward. Instead of the go-to Arduino, [Brock] has gone with a Particle Photon which has the added benefits of various wireless connectivity options. The air quality sensor is a Shinyei PP42ns which interfaces easily with the Photon. The only thing that might be out of reach of most public high schools (at least in the United States) is the 3D-printed enclosure, although if you have access to one, [Brock] put the files on the project page so anyone can use them.

Of course, we’re big fans of projects that get students involved in anything beyond standardized tests, and this project goes a long way towards teaching students more than how to pass a test. There are many videos and instructions on the project page if you want to try this on your own, but if the cost for the materials is the only thing scaring you off from doing this in your own classroom there are a few other options. You could use ATtiny chips, or try a different style of sensor, or maybe just try out a different project altogether.

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Learning From Transparent Microchips

Microchips and integrated circuits are usually treated as black boxes; a signal goes in, and a signal goes out, and everything between those two events can be predicted and accurately modeled from a datasheet. Of course, the reality is much more complex, as any picture of a decapped IC will tell you.

[Jim Conner] got his hands on a set of four ‘teaching’ microchips made by Motorola in 1992 that elucidates the complexities of integrated circuitry perfectly: instead of being clad in opaque epoxy, these chips are encased in transparent plastic.

The four transparent chips are beautiful works of engineering art, with the chip carriers, the bond wires, and the tiny square of silicon all visible to the naked eye. The educational set covers everything from resistors, n-channel and p-channel MOSFETS, diodes, and a ring oscillator circuit.

[Jim] has the chips and the datasheets, but doesn’t have the teaching materials and lab books that also came as a kit. In lieu of proper pedagogical technique, [Jim] ended up doing what any of us would: looking at it with a microscope and poking it with a multimeter and oscilloscope.

While the video below only goes over the first chip packed full of resistors, there are some interesting tidbits. One of the last experiments for this chip includes a hall effect sensor, in this case just a large, square resistor with multiple contacts around the perimeter. When a magnetic field is applied, some of the electrons are deflected, and with a careful experimental setup this magnetic field can be detected on an oscilloscope.

[Jim]’s video is a wonderful introduction to the black box of integrated circuits, but the existence of clear ICs leaves us wondering why these aren’t being made now. It’s too much to ask for Motorola to do a new run of these extremely educational chips, but why these chips are relegated to a closet in an engineering lab or the rare eBay auction is anyone’s guess.

Adafruit launches educational show aimed at kids


Adafruit Industries just posted the first episode in a new educational series aimed at teaching kids about electronics. The episode is entitled “A is for Ampere” and teaches the basic theory behind electrical current. The subject seems like a common one for A-to-Z themed electrical tutorials. [Jeri Ellsworth] did a similar episode but hers is aimed more at the electronics hobby crowd.

[Limor] and gang (that’s [Collin Cunningham] dressed up as [Andre-Marie Ampere]) seem to be all-in on this project. The episode features ADABOT, the blue puppet which takes on the role of the student in this episode. After demonstrating a mains circuit breaker tripping the episode goes on to discuss electron flow and how current is measured.

We’re all about this type of educational opportunity. The age group at which this series is targeted have never known a day without touchscreens, they should know at least something about how those devices actually work.

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From 0 to C: teaching programming without a computer

It’s no secret that learning how to program is very hard, and teaching it doubly so, requiring the student to wrap their head around very unorthodox concepts. [Ubi de Feo] over at the Amsterdam tech collective Hello, Savants! has a unique solution for taking someone who knows nothing of programming and turning them into a computer aficionado capable of deftly wielding semicolons and parens. It’s called From 0 to C, and aims to teach students programming in an environment without computers.

For his class, [Ubi] made up a lot of wooden boxes with eight subdivisions representing the bits in a byte. By putting ping-pong balls in each slot, [Ubi]’s students can grasp the concept of counting by powers of two and quickly move on to hexidecimal and more advanced concepts like bit shifting.

After learning the ins and outs of how stupid computers actually are, [Ubi]’s students then learn the syntax of a language of their choice (C, JavaScript, or Python, for example), and write a few programs.

Although we’re sure most of our readers are far past the ‘learning programming from a blank slate’ portion of their hacker and maker career, anything that gets more people solving their own problems is okay in our book. [Ubi] has a pretty neat take on the pedagogy of teaching programming, and we’d really like to see his work expand outside his Amsterdam collective.