What’s the Best Way to Learn Electronics?

What’s the best way to learn electronics? It’s a pithy question to ask a Hackaday audience, most of whom are at least conversant in the field already. Those who already have learned often have just their own perspective to draw upon—how they themselves learned. Some of you may have taught others. I want to explore what works and what doesn’t.

Hobbyists Learn Differently Than Students

One thing I can say straight off is that students learn differently than people who learn at home. Hobbyists have the advantage of actually being interested, which is a quality a student may not enjoy. People have been teaching themselves electronics since the beginning, with analog projects–Heathkit models, BEAM robots, and ham radio sets–evolving into purely digital projects.

Let’s face it, Arduinos lower the bar like nothing else. There’s a reason why the Blink sketch has become the equivalent to “Hello World”. Dirt cheap and easily configured microcontrollers combined with breakout boards make it easy for anyone to participate.

However, ask any true EE and that person will tell you that following wiring diagrams and plugging in sensor boards from Sparkfun only teaches so much. You don’t bone up on terms like hysteresis or bias by building something from uCs and breakout boards. But do you need to? If you are truly interested in electronics and learn by making those Adafruit or Sparkfun projects, sooner or later you’ll want to make your own breakout boards. You’ll learn how to design your own circuit boards and figure out why things work and why they don’t. I don’t need to tell you the Internet has all the answers a neophyte needs–but the interest has to be there in the first place.

What’s the Best Way to Learn in the Classroom?

There is a product category within robotics kits that consists of “educational rovers” designed to be purchased in group lots by teachers so that each student or small group gets one. These rovers are either pre-built or mostly built—sure, you get to screw in motor mounts, but all the circuit boards are already soldered up for you, surface mount, no less. They come pre-configured for a variety of simple tasks like line following and obstacle avoidance. The Makeblock mBot is an example.

I think it’s part of that whole “learn coding” initiative, where the idea is to minimize the assembly in order to maximize the coding time. Insofar as soldering together a kit of through-hole components teaches about electronics, these bots mostly don’t do it. By all appearances, if there is a best way to learn electronics, this an’t it. However, regardless of what kind of project the teacher puts in front of the student, it still has to generate some sort of passion. What those robots provide is a moment of coolness that ignites the firestorm of interest.

I once led a soldering class that used Blinky Grids by Wayne and Layne as the focus. This is a fantastic kit that guides you through building a small LED matrix. It’s particularly cool because it can be programmed over a computer monitor with light sensors interacting with white and black squares on the company’s web site. When my students finished their grids, they all worked and had unique messages scrolling through. Now, that is a payoff. I’m not saying that any of those folks became hardware hackers as a result of my class, but it beat the hell out of a Christmas tree, am I right?

Getting back to that rover, what must be acknowledged is that the rover itself is the payoff, and that’s only as far as it goes if everyone loses interest. However, a lot of those rovers have expansion possibilities like bolting on another sensor or changing the method of programming–for instance, the mBot has both a graphic programming interface and can also be reflashed with a regular old Arduino bootloader.

Readers, share in comments your own perspective. How did you learn? How would you teach others?

The Hackaday Prize: Exoskeletons for the Masses

While medical facilities continue to improve worldwide, access to expensive treatments still eludes a vast amount of people. Especially when it comes to prosthetics, a lot of people won’t be able to afford something so personalized even though the need for assistive devices is extremely high. With that in mind, [Guillermo Herrera-Arcos] started working on ALICE, a robotic exoskeleton that is low-cost, easy to build, and as an added bonus, 100% Open Source.

ALICE’s creators envision that the exoskeleton will have applications in rehabilitation, human augmentation, and even gaming. Also, since it’s Open Source, it could also be used as a platform for STEM students to learn from. Currently, the team is testing electronics in the legs of the exoskeleton, but they have already come a long way with their control system and getting a workable prototype in place. Moving into the future, the creators, as well as anyone else who develops something on this platform, will always be improving it and building upon it thanks to the nature of Open Source hardware.

Mini Hacker Breaks Down How To Build It

I read the other day that the hot career choice for kids these days is: YouTuber. That means every kid — yes, including mine — has two or three attempts at a YouTube show on their account and then they get into the next big thing and forget about it. On the other hand, sometimes you find someone who has a lot of ideas to share, and the dedication to keep sharing them.

[Kevin Zhou], an 11-year-old from Indonesia, has filmed around  70 videos in the past couple of years, with a fantastic variety of nerdy projects ranging from Mindstorms to Arduino to wood shop projects, and even a Blender tutorial. His projects show a lot of complexity, with serious, real-world concepts, and he shares the technical details about the various components in the project, and he walks you through the code as well.

He made a Mindstorms carving machine, pictured above, with a gantry system holding a motor steady while the user carves into a block of floral foam with LEGO bits. He does a lot of home automation projects using an Arduino and relay board, as well as a number of water-pumping robots. He doesn’t stick to one medium or technology. He has a jigsaw and in one video he shows how to build a Thor’s hammer out of wood. He prints out each layer’s design on office paper and glues the paper to a piece of wood, cutting out the cross-sections on his jigsaw. The whole stack is glued together and clamped. [Kevin]’s design featured a hollow space inside to save weight, which he cut by drilling a 1-inch hole in the center with his drill press, then threading the jigsaw blade through the hole to cut out the inside. As an amateur woodcrafter myself, I like seeing him branching out working on small wood projects.

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Electronics That Can Handle The Pressure

Deep-sea exploration is considered as a relatively new area of research and the electronics involved has to be special in order to survive some of the deepest parts of the ocean. Pressure Tolerant Electronics is a new subject and has its own challenges as explained by [Nic Bingham] of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

[Nic Bingham] was one of the speakers at the Supplyframe office for ‘The Hardware Developers Didactic Galactic’ held April 20th 2017. His talks was based on his experience with ambient-pressure electronics and autonomous solar-diesel power plants at the Antarctic plateau. Due to high pressures at large depths, the selection of components becomes critical. Low density components such as electrolytic capacitors have either air or fluids which are susceptible to compression under water and prone to damage. Since pressure tolerance is not part of most datasheet figures, component selection becomes difficult and subject to prior testing.

There are other challenges as well as [Nic Bingham] explains that revolve around the procurement of special parts as well as spare for older components. In his whitepaper, [Nic Bingham] chalks out everything from the development process to different testing methodologies and even component selection for such applications.

A video of his talk is worth a watch along with the nice writeup by [Chris Gammell] on his first hand experience of the lecture. For those who are looking for something on a budget, the underwater glider project is a good start. Continue reading “Electronics That Can Handle The Pressure”

Ask Hackaday: What Should Father Christmas Bring From Shenzhen?

Imagine this, you have a friend who grew up in Shenzhen, China. The place from whence all your really cool electronics come these days. They speak Chinese in a way only someone born there can, and given that you know them through a shared interest in hardware hacking you can assume they know their way round those famous electronics marts of their home town.

Now, imagine that in a rash move, your friend has offered to pick up a few bits for you on their next trip home. A whole city-sized electronic candy store opens up in front of you, but what do you ask for them to seek out?

Before you continue, consider this. Why has Shenzhen become the powerhouse of electronic manufacturing (and everything else) that it is? Economists will give you pages of fascinating background, but if you want a simple answer it is that those electronics are produced for export, and that its citizens are only too happy to export them to you. Therefore if you want to get your hands on electronics from Shenzhen you do not need a friend who is a native of the city, all you need is a web browser and a PayPal account.

We have all become used to seeking out the cool stuff and eagerly waiting for a padded envelope from China Post a week or two later, so there are very few items that are worth putting a friend to the extra task of finding. At which point you realize that it is the candy store rather than the candy itself which is so alluring, and you ask your friend for a video walkthrough with commentary of their travels through the electronics marts. Oh, and maybe a Chinese Raspberry Pi with red solder resist, just for the collection.

If you had a friend about to board a plane to Shenzhen, what would you ask them to find for you that you can’t just buy for yourself online? Remember, nothing that’ll land them with awkward questions at either airport, nor anything that’ll land them with a hefty customs bill. That’s a very good way to end a friendship.

Huaqiangbei skyline image: Edward Rivens (PD) via Wikimedia Commons.

Electronica 2016: Too Much Electronics

The Electronica trade show in Munich is so big that it only takes place once every two years. Every manufacturer, distributor, and maker of anything electronic is there. To get a feel for the scale of things, Electronica is spread out over twelve large exhibition halls and is served by two separate subway stations, one on either end. You wouldn’t think there would be so many inductor manufacturers in the world, but you’d be wrong.

dscf9020It’s a hardware geek’s paradise, even if it is aimed more at facilitating industry contacts than at serving the humble hacker. But it’s great to see what is out there, quiz reps of all our favorite chip manufacturers about what they’ve got going on, and just generally wander around. You might not get to play with the multi-gigahertz scopes on a day-to-day basis, but you can get hands-on with them at Electronica. And as cool as it is to talk directly to the representatives of our mega-manufacturers, it’s maybe more fun to check up on the creative fringe of companies that you’ve never heard of before, but who nonetheless have great ideas.
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A Short Introduction to Staking and Potting

Staking and potting are not often used in the hobby electronics world, not really entering to the common vernacular. However, everyone who’s ever busted out a glue-gun to convince that dang wire that keeps coming loose to stay has done it.

However, as [Sean Thomas] touches on, staking is not necessarily as easy as a dob of hot glue. There is a method to the madness. [Sean] gives some examples in pictures, but also directs people to the excellent NASA standard methods for staking. It’s surprising how many unintuitive caveats there are to the proper technique.

Potting, or covering everything in epoxy forever, is a great way to get a waterproof, unserviceable, and practically mechanically invincible circuit. The big challenge in potting is picking the right material. A soft silicone, for example, might transfer an unexpected force to an unexpected section of the circuit and cause a mechanical failure. A nice hard epoxy may be too insulating and cause a thermal failure. The standard RTV from the big box store has acetic acid that will eat your components.

These two techniques that come in handy when you need them and worth the bit of reading it takes to get familiar. Have you used either in your own workshop? Let us know the application and the material/techniques you have tried in the comments below.