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A LED at the End of the Tunnel

What does it take to turn a group of initially indifferent adults into open hardware enthusiasts? Turns out not that much. A blinking LED (or three) will do the trick.

Arduino kit for the teachers’ workshop.

I was invited to a Teachers’ Center in Huelva to give a talk to explain the educational virtues of the Open Hardware Arduino platform. I asked if instead I could do a workshop. They said yes. The next thing I had to ask them to do is to buy 20 Arduino kits. I kept it as barebones as possible: each kit would need an Arduino UNO, a USB cable, 3 LEDs (1 green, 1 red, 1 yellow), a servo, a resistor, a push button, and some jumper cables. Total cost per kit: 41 euros and 20 cents.

Just before starting, Fernando, the architect behind the event, warned me I might have some trouble with some of the attendees. There were a couple of attendees who taught computing, a few more electronic engineering, and at least one specialised in robotics; but there was also a group of four quite vocal teachers who couldn’t see the point of the seminar at all. They taught hotel and restaurant management, catering and other subjects related to the hospitality industry, and understandably failed to grasp how Arduinos could affect their subjects.

I was prepared in case I had music teacher, but for the hospitality industry I had nothing. I hoped that natural human inquisitiveness would save the day. As it turned out, I surprised myself by not being wrong.

Sergio, a sandy-haired, ruddy-faced electronics teacher, arrived early and we chatted, while I struggled with the overhead projector. Yes, he had heard of Arduino, from his students no less. He was curious on how he could exploit the platform in class. No, he had missed the rest of the seminar because he had just come from work at the institute he taught at, but he didn’t want to miss the practical session. I made a mental note to myself: here I had a potential ally.

If attendance to your session is voluntary, the people who bother to come in through the door want to see you talk and are really interested in what you have to say. Such was the case of Sergio. They are on your side even before you open your mouth. You should make the most of that and you owe it to them not to mess up.

But sometimes there are… ah… incentives designed to make attendees sit through session upon session of a multi-day conference. Students can get credits and civil servants (like the teachers attending this event) can get points that allow them choose their next teaching destination. Unfortunately, these incentives, while they do get more rumps on seats, will often kill attendees vocational motivation and actually make them indifferent or even hostile to the session, however interesting the subject matter.

A few minutes later, the rest of the attendees, fifteen in total, filed in, glassy eyed and tired after a whole day of talks and presentations. Four of them went straight to the back of the classroom and slumped, bored and listless, in the chairs.

What are your guys names?” I asked them.

Antonio, Pepa, Begoña, Javier…

Hi. I’m Paul. Do you teach hospitality industry-related subjects?

That caught them off guard. “Yes! How did you know?

A lucky guess. Why don’t you check out what you have on your desks?

The Arduino boxes look interesting even before you open them.
The Arduino boxes look interesting even before you open them.

I had laid out the kits beforehand so we could dive right in. Carefully arranged gadgets, electronic components, and little cardboard boxes with interesting designs printed on them, such as the ones the original Arduinos come in, will spark the curiosity of even the most jaded seminar-goer. Soon everybody, had all their stuff spread out in front of them and the classroom was buzzing with curiosity and there was a lot of pointing and fiddling.

I held up my own board: “Do you want to plug your Arduinos into your computers? My computer isn’t working, so I’ll have to walk around and check yours.” It was true. I had given up trying to make my my laptop talk to the overhead projector, but this also gave me an excuse to prowl and see were people had difficulties.

Click on the Arduino icon on your desktop. Check Tools, and then Port. If you see a port with a checkbox next to it, everything is okay.

The "Blink"  sketch blinks a LED on pin 13.
The “Blink” sketch blinks a LED on pin 13.

An orginal Arduino UNO comes with the Blink sketch (a sketch is a program in Arduino parlance) preinstalled. This means that, on a new board right out of the box, one of the status LEDs (linked to pin 13) starts blinking on and off every second the moment you plug it in. It is difficult to notice, because the onboard LED is so small, but once I showed them how to plug a green LED directly into pin 13 and the GND pin located right beside it, it started flashing and there were some oohs and ahhs.

We transferred the LEDs to their breadboards, wired them up, and went through changing the speed of the blinking by modifying a couple of parameters in the sketch. Then we saw how to upload the sketch to the Arduino. It was then I realised I wouldn’t have to be teaching much else that evening.

This is all very basic stuff, I know, but that is the point. If you gauge your audience correctly and see you can start out with simple, practical (as opposed to theoretical) tasks, it is much more likely you will succeed.

Not my photo (I supidly forgot to take pictures), but it captures the spirit prefectly.  Photo Credit: Tríona Butler
Not my photo (I stupidly forgot to take pictures), but it captures the spirit prefectly.
Photo Credit: Tríona Butler

Some of the attendees decided to make the LED blink slower, some faster. One pair had it blink signalling the international morse code for S.O.S. Begoña, one of the hospitality industry teachers, said “So that’s how Christmas lights work!

Sergio held up the yellow and red LEDs: “Can we…?

Sure. You’ve got a green, a yellow and a red LED. I was thinking we could make a traffic light.

The effect was, in more than one way, electric. Here was a task that fifteen minutes ago they would have had no idea how to complete. But now… They got so into it, I had to ditch most of the other exercises, although we did have a brief look at servos, because, you know, robotics are fun.

With five minutes left to the class, I stopped everything and showed them a some fun videos of projects built by Arduino aficionados. And then we went over time a bit because of all the questions: where can I buy my own components on the cheap for my students? Can Arduino be used in home automation? Is there a specific library for robotics? Where can I learn more about the language?

How could tasks so simple generate so much enthusiasm and spark such a lively conversation? My teacher/students, probably like their own students, had been too long on the receiving end of an education model in which the flow of information goes only in one way: from those that supposedly have all the knowledge (teachers, textbook authors, lecturers) towards those that are considered completely ignorant. Do I have to point out the flaw in this premise? And if the premise is not even remotely true, the model is useless.

Address the imbalance by giving more responsibilities to the audience, and the learning is usually much more efficient. With small, gradual pushes, people can learn by themselves, making them more resourceful and enthusiastic about the subject matter. This is true both for students in classrooms and attendees at seminars or conferences.

My advice would be, if your aim is to try to get people interested in open technologies, keep it simple, keep it practical, and keep it real. At least that’s what seemed to work for Begoña, Antonio, Javier, Pepa, Sergio, and all the rest of the teachers at the CEP of Huelva.

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