Thursday, May 03, 2018

A DIY Ecosystem for Learning Microcontrollers and Physical Computing

Microcontrollers are central elements in modern electronics as embedded computers. Most vendors offer many inexpensive evaluation platforms to showcase their microcontroller products. Typically such platforms (Arduino, MSP430 LaunchPad etc) fall short on the aspect of sensors and other digital I/O peripherals.

We set out to design a DIY-able sensors and peripherals board that anyone with access to simple PCB fabrication facilities, can recreate and further the task of learning about microcontroller programming and physical computing.

While Arduino remains a popular microcontroller learning platform, MSP430 which is a popular, capable and formidable microcontroller from Texas Instruments lacks an inexpensive learning platform. TI's MSP430 Launchpad  sells for about Rs. 1200 in India and can be prohibitive for some.

MSP430 LunchBox

To address the cost issue with an introductory MSP430 learning platform, we created the MSP430 LunchBox.  

MSP430 LunchBox is an inexpensive MSP430 learning platform that can be fabricated for personal use for under Rs. 100. The LunchBox board supports any 14-pin or 20-pin DIP package MSP430 G series microcontroller, which a hobbyist can obtain for free through the TexasInstruments’ free samples programme. The entire bill of material for the board, excluding the microcontroller, is under Rs. 100. The PCB has been designed in a single sided, toner transfer friendly format, allowing enthusiasts to fabricate one, at little or no cost. The photograph below shows the early lab prototype of the LunchBox.

The PCB board files used to fabricate the lab version of the PCB as seen above can also be mass manufactured for a more professional experience. The photograph below shows such a professionally manufactured board.





The table below lists the salient features of the LunchBox.

Feature
MSP430 LunchBox
Microcontroller
MSP430G2553 & others
CPU Architecture
16-bit
Operating Voltage
3.3V
Operating Clock
10 kHz to 16 MHz
Operating Current
4.5 mA @ 16 MHz
Programming
Factory UART BSL
Debugging
Not supported
Supported IDEs
CCS, Energia
Available I/Os
14
Analog Inputs
8
PWM Outputs
6
Peripherals
1 LED, 1 Switch, UART
Cost
Rs. 100/-


Sensors and Peripherals Board

Like the Arduino or the MSP430 Launchpad, the LunchBox too is devoid of any serious sensors or user peripherals. So,  to enrich the learning experience, we  developed two simple and inexpensive I/O expansion boards, the Mini-Voyager-1 and Mini-Voyager-2. As with the LunchBox, the Mini-Voyagers are also a single sided PCBs that can be fabricated at home or lab. The following tables list the salient features of both the Mini-Voyagers.

Feature
Mini-Voyager-1
LEDs
A single RGB LED
LED Display
4-digit Seven Segment Display
Temperature
Thermistor
Light
LDR
User Input
5-switch Navigation Switch

Capacitive Touch Input
Analog
Potentiometer
Pulse Wave
IC 7555 based adjustable astable multivibrator

Feature
Mini-Voyager-2
Display
16x2 LCD with Backlight Control switch
Switch
Single Pushbutton
Keypad
4x4 Keypad
Time
PCF8563 RTC with I2C and with Battery backup
Serial Bus
Shift Register with SPI Bus

RTC with I2C Interface
Sound
Buzzer

The photograph below shows both the Mini-Voyagers in the company of the MSP430 LunchBox.

Using LunchBox with Mini-Voyagers


To use the LunchBox together with Mini-Voyager-1 and/or Mini-Voyager-2 is as easy as 1-2-3.
1.     Write code in IDE.
2.     Connect the required peripherals from MV-1 or MV-2 to the LunchBox pins using male header pins provided on the board. 

3.     Connect the supply voltage of either 3.3 V or 5 V using male header pins provided on the LunchBox (other microcontroller platforms that work at 3.3V such as MSP430, MSP432, TIVA ARM as well as the BeagleBoneBlack can be used as easily. Microcontrollers that work at 5V can also be used with Mini-Voyagers.).
4.     Power the LunchBox using a USB mini cable.
5.     Upload the code. 
CODE CONNECT UPLOAD!

The photograph below shows LunchBox and Mini-Voyager-1 in action. More than 50 experiments and small projects can be performed using this ecosystem.


During a recent event, we had 10s of students solder, test and use the LunchBoxes and Mini-Voyager-1!

The LunchBox and the Mini-Voyager platforms have been developed at CEDT and TI-CEPD at NSIT. For more details, contact info@cepd.in


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Standalone RGB LED Kaleidoscope

Many people have implemented LED kaleidoscopes.

Here is our version. It is an MSP430 controlled toy. Uses three  PCBs: One for 4 RGB LEDs arranged in a 'Y' configuration, another for LiPo battery powered Boost + LDO voltage regulator and USB battery charger and the third PCB for the MSP430 microcontroller that control the RGB LED lighting patterns and few tilt sensors. An acrylic mirror assembly with glass bangle pieces to play with the incoming light from the RGB LEDs, makes up the rest of the assembly. All this is placed inside a large plastic conduit pipe and closed with machined plastic covers.

This project was implemented by two of my students at CEDT, Nishant Arora and Riddhi Luthra and I am really proud of them!

Some of the lighting patterns captured on a phone camera can be seen in this YouTube video.


Here are some of the pictures!








Thursday, January 18, 2018

'Tinkering' Awareness Workshop at Jammu



Background

The first Tinkering awareness workshop in Srinagar that we conducted was hosted by XV Corps from 4-6 December 2017 and was a great success. It also gave us important insights on how to prepare for a workshop with school children at a remote location.

Shortly after we returned from the workshop, I had a phone conversation with an army officer from the XVI Corps based in the Jammu region of J&K and he wanted to schedule a similar workshop for the army goodwill and public schools under his corps. We decided to have this workshop sometime in January.

Fast forward to January 8 and I received a phone call from an energetic sounding captain of  the Indian Army. She was talking about holding a tinkering workshop as soon as possible. She suggested the weekend of January 13 but I mentioned the challenges of getting assuredly reserved train tickets, training kits and other material etc at such short notice. She also mentioned that the plan was to hold the workshop at the Army Goodwill Public School at Potha in Poonch district. I consulted the map and it showed travel time from Jammu (nearest air/railhead) to Potha to be around 7 hours. This meant that we would spend a good 14-15 hours on the road instead of interacting with the participants.

Earlier in December 2017, during a workshop at IIT, Jammu and had a conversation with their director Prof. Manoj Gaur and he mentioned that IIT Jammu (like most other educational institutes) is committed towards conducting outreach programmes for the local society. I remembered this conversation and immediately sent a message to Prof. Gaur asking whether they would be willing to host the event at IIT Jammu. I was pleasantly surprised when he replied positively. At this point I got the captain in touch with  Prof. Gaur and they quickly agreed upon having the workshop at IIT Jammu on January 12 and 13, 2018.

Captain Suman then brought in her superiors in the loop and they all worked furiously to arrange logistics for transporting 60+ students and few teachers from the three selected school. Once the location and logistics of this workshop was finalized at IIT Jammu, we prepared to arrive in Jammu on the morning of 12th January to begin the workshop.

From 8th till we began our journey from Delhi on 11th December, more than 30 students in my lab worked relentlessly to test the demonstration projects and arrange sufficient quantity of the 'Sadbhavana Discovery Kits' that we had first put together for the Srinagar workshop. This time around, we even had a manual for the kit ready. AT IIT Jammu, Commodore (retd.) Naresh Kumar, OSD (Officer on Special Duty) and his team were busy ensuring that the lodging and boarding facilities for all the participants would be in place, in time.

Day 1: 12th January 2018

We see a clear mandate for us when we conduct such a 'Tinkering' workshop for school children. The objective is to introduce modern electronic components and sensors and embedded computers with a single objective: TO INDUCE LOVE FOR SCIENCE THROUGH TECHNOLOGY. 

Instead of rote learning that most often our school students are subjected to, we strive to introduce these elements of technology so that they can be used to demonstrate interesting scientific principles they study in books but most often, never see them in action in real life. We feel and many would agree with us, that such an approach has the potential of instilling fundamental interest in the hearts and minds of young children, sowing the seeds of potential scientists and engineers amongst our young minds.

We intended to implement this very mandate during the 2-day event, as we describe below.

We (Me and Srijan Pabbi from 6th sem ECE and Yash Jain from 4th sem ECE) traveled by Rajdhani Express on the night of 11th December and reached the Jagti campus of IIT Jammu by 9 am on 12th January, ready to set the ball rolling. This new campus is still under construction and the rate of construction is racy.


The participants, ~70 students, ~15 teachers and 3 principals of AGPS Rajouri, Pinewood School Hamirpur and AGS Potha respectively, as well as a few army personnel, were all assembled in a large hall at the Jagti campus.


The event started with a brief welcome by Cmde. Naresh Kumar and then I took over and started with our project demonstrations.


All the students, without exception, were very well behaved and respectful. They all turned out sharply, always queuing up when needed. They were as curious and inquisitive as the group I met in Srinagar. They asked a lot of questions and I took time to explain the background for each project and to quiz them about the inner workings of each project. I have found that this approach works best at every level - school children as well as college students, just the level of the questions change. For college students, one can enter into more intimate discussion regarding the details of the circuitry and the software.





Before the last session on the first day, we distributed the 'Sadbhavana Discovery Kit' to each school. As during the Srinagar workshop, this kit is our gift to the participating Army schools here as well. Each kit has enough material to engage 25 students in groups of 4-5 each.

The first day ended around 4:30 pm, with a hands-on activity where all the participants made a homopolar motor using the parts supplied in the 'Sadbhavana Discovery Kit'

Day 2: 13th January 2018

We started the second day a bit earlier than the first day. And the first activity was to build the 'Faraday Generator' using the components from the 'Sadbhavna Discovery Kit'. All the participants split in groups of 4-5 with a teacher to supervise. I explained the steps for building the generator and soon enough, the first group had their coil, almost 1000 turns of 36 SWG of copper enameled wire,  wound on the thread spool. Few steps later, the first group had their Faraday generator connected to an LED working.


The next project we took up was to build a DC motor. The DC motor requires a coil wound using a thicker (than the Faraday generator) copper enameled wire, a few turns of the wire, using an 'AA' battery as a guide. The participants quickly got this done. The next part required soldering, so I set up a table and had them come one by one. I was pleasantly surprised when one of the senior army officers volunteered to help with the soldering! One of the best pictures we see here!


Everyone got the DC motor working soon. Next, we had to prepone the valedictory session to accommodate the availability of Prof. Manoj Gaur, the director of IIT Jammu.



Once the valedictory session was completed, we covered two more sessions! In one session all the participants explored their own LED kaleidoscope kits and then Srijan Pabbi gave a demonstration on how to install the Arduino IDE, how to write a short sketch and how to download and run the code on an Arduino Nano kit. For demonstration, he chose how to play an 'SOS' message in Morse as well as visual way and how to change the sound patterns for SOS, ever so carefully to turn it into a Nokia phone ring tone! That was quite educational and illustrative for everyone. At the end, we distributed one more 'Sadbhavana Discovery Kit' to each school so that they could go back and share it with other students who could not make it to this event.


Hopefully, all the participants would head back to their school and start playing with an Arduino platform for useful applications. The manual that accompanies the 'Sadbhavana Discovery Kit' has quite a few resources to get started.

Postscript

As with the participants at the Srinagar workshop, the participants from the Jammu region schools (although AGPS Rajouri falls up north in the winter belt) were very disciplined, curious, hardworking and willing to learn and excited to experiment. They displayed having being brought up in a good learning environment at their school and the interaction with the accompanying teachers and respective principals provided enough evidence of that.

The best part of this was the watchful eyes of the Army Officers in charge of each school. It is under the nurturing care of the Indian Army that this has been possible. A true 'Sadbhavana' towards the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir! And they have my strong support for any activity leading to better teaching and learning in their schools.

I thank Corps XVI officers involved with the event and it's planning and organization. IIT Jammu under the dynamic leadership of their director Prof. Manoj Gaur deserves a special credit. He has offered his institute for any such event in future too. We felt at home at IIT Jammu, thanks in no small measure due to delicious food and other arrangements made by the hosts for this event. My students at CEDT who put in stupendous effort, as always, to make this event possible are my extended family and I love them as much.


Jai Hind!



Thursday, December 07, 2017

'Tinkering' Awareness in Kashmir Valley Schools

Background

I have been aware of the Atal Tinkering Lab (ATL) program by Niti Aayog since May 2016 or perhaps a little earlier. I had an opportunity to share the details of this scheme with the teacher participants of the
Workshop on Bringing Computational Thinking to Schools held at DPS RK Puram on 20th June 2016. Subsequently, I helped a few schools to formulate and submit their proposals to Niti Aayog. By the end of 2016, 257 schools had been selected for the ATL grant. In early 2017, further ~700 schools were selected. 

Fast forward to August 2017, when it appeared to me that operating an ATL is a tough challenge for a school and that the benefits that one would have expected from an ATL would not fructify unless a strong and sustained mechanism to offer technical help to run the labs, is provided to the schools. The current ATL model does not allow for any such mechanism and expects the schools to manage their lab on their own. I wrote an article Atal Tinkering Lab: Building Inventors In Classrooms highlighting the issues, problems and possible solutions.

'Tinkering' for Army Goodwill Schools

Someone in the Indian Army was taking note of these developments and they contacted me to introduce this concept of tinkering to the many 'Army Goodwill schools' that Indian Army runs in the state of Jammu and Kashmir as part of Operation Sadbhavana.

Eventually, a three day event was planned at Army Public School, Srinagar from 4th to 6th December 2017. A total of 14 schools with their teachers and students were expected to participate. The event had two components: a tinkering sensitization workshop for students and teachers for the first two days and later a day with the teachers and Army officers in charge of each goodwill school to understand the ATL application to be submitted to Niti Aayog to get the ATL grant at a future date.

We were to be the guests of the XV Corps of the Indian Army in Srinagar.  We (Me, Sangeeta and two of my students - Akshay Goyal and Nishant Arora) planned to take all our embedded electronics projects for demonstration as well as a gift box, for each of the participating schools. This took up two large suitcases as seen in the following pictures.


The gift box had several individual project kits as seen in the pictures below.

Arriving in Srinagar

We arrived on Sunday, the 3rd December at the Holiday Home in Badami Bagh camp. It was bright and sunny with fresh air, so unlike Delhi! The camp is self contained with shopping malls, parks, cinema theater etc. and one does not need to venture out in the city except for a few touristy things. The mess assigned for our meals had excellent cooks and we enjoyed every single meal.

The first day of the workshop on 4th December started slow but it was amazing. The host school, the Army Public School from Srinagar had, understandably, the biggest turnout of teachers as well as students at the workshop but the rest of schools were from small towns and rural areas of north Kashmir and were represented by a teacher a few students each. At the beginning of the workshop, I suspected that language could be a problem so I decided to switch between English and Hindi as required.

The Workshop and the Meetings

Introducing myself, my team and NSIT was followed by a customary question - What do you want to be, when you grow up? 'Corps Commander, IAS officer, IPS officer, Engineer, Journalist, Doctor...!' a wide variety of choices and options, unlike what you may hear from most city kids. I was touched by the kids' curiosity, innocence, simplicity and absolute absence of guile even in these trying times!

We could only demonstrate 50% of our projects on the first day. Also, one of our suitcases which contained the gift boxes had been held up at the Delhi airport due to our own mistake - it had a power bank that is not allowed on checked in luggage any more! Thankfully, It still arrived later on the first day of the workshop itself, courtesy, the skillful handling of the situation by the involved Army officers!

For the day, the icing on the cake was that even after the workshop closed for the day, host school kids kept bringing their classmates in droves to see and play with the projects on display!



On the second day, we completed the project demonstrations and then distributed the gift boxes to each school. I went through the list of component inventory in the box to explain the details of each and every component to the teachers and students. This was followed by a demonstration of the LED Kaleidoscope from this gift box and then we had each school perform all the three projects from the kits in the box: wind the long copper enameled wire on the thread spool to make a Faraday generator, test the homopolar motor and then build and test the DC motor. The DC motor was a bit of a challenge to get to work, but finally, everyone got every single project working. The joy, satisfaction and pride on the kids' faces was quite evident. Many participants wanted more kits. I promised to send them more, much more, once they gave me evidence of (i) using all the components from this kit through pictures and reports and (ii) teaching other students from their school in the process. All in all, a great learning and sharing experience. We bid goodbye to the student participants on 5th December, with a promise to meet again somewhere, somehow!







On 6th December, we had a quick meeting with the teachers and Army officers to explain the ATL grant application. Later, we had a meeting with our hosts to discuss the way forward and then we rushed to the airport to catch the early evening Vistara flight to Delhi.

My Assessment

In my assessment, the situation regarding science education and awareness in Kashmir is excellent. At no point, did I feel that the students assembled at the workshop were any less knowledgeable or less curious than students anywhere else. They were equally eager to work with their hands and build whatever we offered. They had as much glint in their eyes when their projects worked, as any other kid I have seen anywhere else! And all this, in spite of the current situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Kudos to the Indian Army for doing a commendable job in providing a healing touch through education for the local children. The way forward is for all the Army Public and Goodwill schools (as well as other schools too) to approach Niti Aayog to request an Atal Tinkering Lab in each of their schools. This will provide much needed material and encouragement to kids in far flung areas. It will bring them closer to technology that they can touch and feel and play with, in a fruitful manner to enrich their own understanding of science and compare favorably with whatever they get to read through social media.

I appeal to everyone involved in this ecosystem to help bring ATL to these schools!

Jai Hind, Jai Hind ki Sena!


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Post script: We came back on 6th December and Kashmir is calling again already! :)