Motivating Engineering Students With Microcontrollers

We see a lot of microcontroller based hacks around here, and it’s not hard to see why learning how to use microcontrollers is valuable to prospective engineeer. Unfortunately, microcontroller courses are dreaded by students since they focus on theory instead of application. In The First Lecure, [Colin] talks to a class of engineering students about how to get practical with microcontrollers.

He starts with an overview of a bomb countdown project that he used to learn the basics of microcontrollers. This started as a 555 based timer, but he ended up using a PIC18 after having issues with timing and reliability. Next, he discusses a paintball sentry gun inspired by a Hackaday post.  He finishes off some advice and gives the students some hardware: a Pickit2 programmer and a Saleae Logic Analyzer.

It’s easy to lose motivation due to the heavy focus on theory in engineering. [Colin]’s advice to start building stuff will hopefully motivate these students to take an interest in microcontrollers. We also like how he advises students to read Hackaday. Check out the full video of the lecture after the break.

16 thoughts on “Motivating Engineering Students With Microcontrollers

  1. Great lecture.

    I’m just wondering, though, when and where did he go to school? (I can’t access his website, corp. firewall forbids it.) Because he mentioned that he didn’t know about MCU’s when he went through college and that his professors didn’t know about them either. I’m reasonably sure I went through college before he did at an OK-not-great-not-bad school, but even there we worked with microcontrollers. Just curious.

    Anyway, again, great lecture. May be he can start this sort of program at HS or JHS levels, too. It reminds me of Eben Upton’s, of Raspberry Pi fame, talk at TED where he mentioned as a director for undergraduate admissions at St. John’s College, Cambridge, he noticed a very significant drop in programming/technical experience in recent applicants compared to 15–20 years ago which was one of the motivations for him creating the RPi. Somebody as enthusiastic as [Colin] could do a lot in pushing youngsters to pursue a future in technical fields.

    1. I graduated from school about 3 years ago with an EE degree and we never once had a class on working with microcontrollers. It’s pretty rediculous – the only reason I even knew about microcontrollers was from the time I spent playing with them *before* I even went to school. It’s a shame and I’m glad other people like RasPi foundation are stepping up and (hopefully) getting more young people interested in electronics.

      1. I wonder if the choice of a major has something to do with it. IOW, whether a microcontroller programming class is required or not. My brother was an EE major and I don’t think he ever took one, but that’s probably simply because he’s more interested in designing one than using it. If he’d wanted to, though, he could’ve taken them as electives. I know when I took mine there were always some EE majors in the class. They usually gave themselves away when they scored high in quizzes on timing diagrams. (c:

        Anyway, I didn’t know [Colin] was the one who invented Thumbies. I just recently saw them somewhere I can’t remember where, not Best Buy, and had one of those, “Why didn’t think of that” moments. Well done [Colin].

  2. I’m in this class! Getting the Saleae was a fantastic surprise, since I’d been eyeing one for several months.

    Colin gave a fantastic talk about why microcontrollers are important to us as EE/CE students and how they can open doors to hacks we couldn’t accomplish any other way.

  3. I had a teacher in High School that taught us about microcontrollers and that’s what made me want to be an Engineer.
    I’m a senior now in EE on my last semester and I’ve never gotten to use a microcontroller in any of my classes.

  4. I think this is a great work! We had a class about microcontrollers at my University, but there weren’t many of my classmates who really liked working with them. So almost no one ended up doing anything with microcontrollers after that class. In order to revert that, some friends and I decided to form a Robotics Club at the Uni, where we can learn about microcontrollers and robotics and so we can encourage students that are starting the career to learn and make awesome stuff. =D

  5. i wish i had more teachers like this in college. we barely got to do anything practical that wasn’t just following a checklist. giving people freedom to do something cool with what they learn is such a great motivational tool.

  6. I’m currently in my 3rd year of an ECSE degree, and we haven’t had any lectures on microcontrollers either. We’ve had one where we studied C, one on FPGAs, and another where we studied real time OSs, and several where we studied the basic theory behind digital processors, but nothing specific to microcontrollers.
    We have, however, had one unit where we told to design a robot, given an Arduino and some basic lectures on mechanics, H-bridges, etc., and told “go for it”.

    My guess is that microcontrollers are now considered too easy to be bothered spending time on.

    1. As a developer yes, as a designer the math prerequisites alone make EE even at doctorate level look like grade school..

      There is no master or doctorate level for computer engineering majors though. It all goes to EE or Physics.

    2. I’m really hoping it’s the case that uCs are considered too easy to be bothered with. (because if that is the case, it’s just a serious lack of imagination!!)

      Certainly this stuff was covered whilst I was at university.

      It might be that equipment to actually investigate is expensive.
      certainly, at the uni I went to we had a custom dev board, with custom boot loader, built around a motorolla 68HC11 -we studied ASM and C.

      some dev boards will take abuse better than others, endless buying of dev boards can be expensive.

      There will always be a difference in course content. -though I’m shocked to learn that there are people studying EE without doing anything on uC’s -whilst my course had multiple modules on uC’s

      Still perhaps that’s also why some courses are marked as better than others, (hons degree, vs just ordinary bachelors), and why some courses are accredited (by IET -previouslt IEE), and others are not.

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