Explore Arduino! My experience in creating a successful program series teaching hands-on physical computing to teens
Last year I had the pleasure of serving as an Interim Teen Librarian. In addition to numerous school visit presentations covering Booktalks, discussing the library’s Teen Summer Reading Program, and helping to increase Information Literacy, one of my favorite projects was creating a four-part Arduino program series for teens.
When asked in June 2013 to create the Arduino Program series for an upcoming autumn teen program, I had never even heard the word. I had access to a Strategic Initiative proposal crafted by the prior teen librarian which I joined with hours of personal research. Result: I learned that Arduino is all about physical computing. Okay, since I have taken computer programming courses and like things technical, I understand how Arduino and the Arduino computing language work together. But how do I then take that knowledge and create a successful teen program about physical computing where they will have fun while learning a technical skill? That required asking the following questions:
- what aspects should be explored?
- what is the best way to communicate those aspects?
- how do you create an effective & successful series & then measure outcome?
Upon collaborating with a computer programmer and a physical-computing lab manager, we discovered the best route would be Sparkfun’s Inventor’s Kits (SIK), a comprehensive kit with an excellent SIK Guide that steps users through 15 “circuits” (breadboards built with components like LEDs, potentiometers’, resistors, etc. + code). After successfully completing these circuits, user should have the basics for building almost any Arduino project found on the web: holiday light displays, lighted textiles, robotic drum kits, etc.
I discovered that teens liked the SIKs because of the incredible physicality offered: within the span of an afternoon, hands-on-work resulted in flashing lights, audible music, and customizable LCD screen displays. (Well, customizable within the span of 16 characters.) Consisting of a series of four separate sessions, the original time for a single session was planned to be about 1.25 hours (+ cleanup). However, the draw of the kits kept the teens riveted for two solid hours each session.
The unexpected and very exciting part of the whole series for me was how well the teens used the Integrated Developers Environment, which is the tool used to create/edit programming code: they were able to read, understand, and interact with the IDE well enough to craft personalized outcomes. For example, changing musical tones and making the LCD screen read, “Help, I’m in a box!” instead of the kit’s prescribed “Hello World” display. (In addition to the Sparkfun kits, computer access is required, as Arduino is a computer-based program.)
The most time-intensive part of this program is troubleshooting. When a circuit doesn’t work you must figure out if that LED is in backwards or if it’s just bad. Is the circuit complete, or is there a wire in a wrong spot? I like figuring out puzzles, so I found this part enjoyable.
On the last day when asked if four programs was enough, attendees gave alternate numbers of five, seven, and ‘ongoing’. Five of the teens who came to several programs were in the following week asking if the kits were available for drop-in sessions – that they liked it enough to seek it out afterwards was exceptionally gratifying.
The Sparkfun Arduino kits were definitely a successful way to approach this subject, and a program series that I think can be adopted by anyone interested…with one caveat: you need someone present who likes troubleshooting why things aren’t working.
Sparkfun’s Inventor’s Kit for Arduino v3.1: https://www.sparkfun.com/products/12001
Arduino official site: http://www.arduino.cc/
Note: I used SIK version 3.0; SIK version 3.1 includes an added mini screwdriver for securing the RedBoard to the baseplate and replaces the red breadboard with a white one. A fantastic replacement, as it was hard to read the numbers on the translucent red-colored board.