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Adventures in Arduino

June 9, 2011

When I was a kid, I would dream of making my own robot, or an automated house. I longed for my computer programs in basic to do something more than print stuff on the screen, and instead bring a skeleton of steel to life. Sadly, I never really invested myself in either programming or robot construction enough to make that happen.

Recently, I’ve been playing with an Arduino Uno, which is a cheap microporocessor that you can program via USB. The possibilities for what you can do with Ardunio are truly limitless—Google just announced that Arduino will be the foundation of the Andriod Open Hardware standard, which means you’ll be able to use Arduino to create an automated coffeemaker, and then control it via your Android phone so that coffee will be waiting for you when you get into the office. Closer to home, Steve Dickie has been doing some awesome stuff to use Arduino to in education, including making your own probeware and even designing a whole engineering course in Electronics with Arduino.

This thing is super simple to use, and so far, one the of the things I’m most enjoying is the Getting Started with Arduino book, published by Make, which is unlike any other instruction book I’ve read. The book encourages a tinkering approach to learning that seems to be lost in today’s locked down/throw it away/don’t fix it culture. Here’s a an illustration and a few quotes from the book just to give you a sense of this philosophy.

This is a chord, this is another, this is a third...Now form a band.

A great philosophy of learning that I would love to bring into more of my teaching. Here are a few things to learn, now go try to something awesome with this.

A quote the book takes from the Exploratorium:

Tinkering is what happens when you try something you don’t quite know how to do, guided by whim, imagination, and curiosity. When you tinker, there are no instructions—but there are also no failures, no right or wrong ways of doing things. It’s about figuring out how things work and reworking them.

Contraptions, machines, wildly mismatched objects working in harmony—this is the stuff of tinkering.

Tinkering is, at is most basic, a process that marries play and inquiry.

One more quote from the book on the Arduino Way:

Classic engineering relies on a strict process for getting from A to B; the Arduino Way delights in the possibility of getting lost on the way and finding C instead.

I’m still not exactly sure how I’ll use Arduino in my classes—though I’d love to create a new class where we spend a full semester exploring electronics using Arduino, but I think this is going to be a very powerful tool for student-initiated projects.

And to illustrate this process of finding C on the way to B, just yesterday, Andy “SuperFly” Rundquist sent out this tweet about how he’d managed to get Mathematica to record live data from the Arduino.

Small pieces loosely joined leads to some great possiblities for learning.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. justin permalink
    June 9, 2011 8:02 am

    Arduino is awesome but I can’t agree with you on the book. I agree that its approach encourages inquiry but fails to explain properly new syntax being thrown in. It reminded me a bit of those 20 page BASIC programs that I would get in some little book and I would type into my apple 2e and bam I had some cheesy game that i didn’t understand at all.

    ps love the blog

    • June 9, 2011 10:15 am

      I’m afraid I haven’t yet delved too deeply in the book past the introduction. After setting up the Arduino, I followed another set of instructions to get it to program a blink M I had. I’ll keep this in mind, though. Miss the days of of the apple 2e.

  2. June 9, 2011 8:19 am


    It would be interesting to start a “tinkering” course in the High School with the Arduino as a backdrop for what the course is based around. You could apply the principles of PBL and create a very interesting curriculum I would think. What are the interdisciplinary connections–math to science, science to history, history to english, etc. Thoughts?


    • June 9, 2011 10:16 am

      A tinkering class would be awesome. With the robotics lab and a former mechanical engineering professor on staff, we are ideally suited for such an endeavor. While I don’t see interdisciplinary connections to Arduino beyond computer science and mathematics off the top of my head, the tinkering philosophy could easily make for a rich interdisciplinary experience.

    • June 9, 2011 10:58 am

      Tinkering class — great idea! But start it in elementary school.

      Connections to history/geography: who makes circuit boards and integrated circuits? Who makes the materials that they are made of? Where do the people come from? Where do the materials come from? If I make a device that regulates my furnace to save energy, how is that offset by the human rights abuses at the Chilean mine where the copper comes from? What happens when we throw out electronics? How were they made in the past? How did that affect our economies/social structures? What would our economies/social structures be like if technology had taken a different path? (It’s hard to even imagine these questions if circuit boards and ICs are vague, remote concepts). If you’re interested in these questions, you might like John Boutelle’s Citizen Engineer.

      Connections to English: if the book/manual/data sheet isn’t perfect, rewrite it. Lots of opportunities to discuss visual design, info graphics. Because a manual purports to teach you something, writing one is even an opening for a conversation about how to teach. (consider critiquing its effectiveness, accessibility… or even its tendency to have pseudoteaching effects…)

      • June 9, 2011 12:33 pm

        These are awesome ideas. I’ll definitely check your book recommendation.

  3. June 9, 2011 12:37 pm

    If you are going to do anything with Arduino I highly recommend the Arduino Cookbook it has it all. While the getting started in Arduino is cool and hipster, the sketches it recommends won’t get you very far.

    The cookbook (found on Amazon) allows you to find what you want to do and either copy the code or understand it well enough to make it your own.

    I talk about how Arduino in Education for Math/Physics could work and I look forward to more and more educators adopting it

  4. June 10, 2011 11:54 am

    I like my Arduino. I’ll be spending this summer teaching the high-school robotics club (all 3 of them) how to program it.

    One simple thing that they’ve already got the hardware done for: get an OWI arm (directly from OWI, without Make’s 40% markup) and a motor shield and use the Arduino to control the arm. It is strictly open loop (no feedback), but is a good starting point for learning about motor control and robotics.

    I’m thinking of starting a new blog, just for my Arduino stuff, which I’ve not gotten around to putting on my usual blog.


  1. The Science Learnification (Almost) Weekly – June 19, 2011 « Science Learnification

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