Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Inevitability of Tinkering

In the 80s, when I completed my high school, the only source of information was books – personal or in the library of a school or college. To know about anything, you had to seek access to these books.

Also, the only source of physical material or gadgets or such consumer goods was the corner shop. If you wanted to have something, you would have to find a suitable business that sold it and you could buy it off them. As a consumer in the 80s, the economy was controlled by what is referred to as the ‘license raj’. You could only buy something which local companies with the government license to manufacture things within the country, could sell you. Having access to consumer goods manufactured abroad required you to shell out big money in the ‘grey’ market.

Cut to the 90s and one of the two aspects mentioned above changed drastically. I got employment in a modern S&T institute of India that provided easy Internet access. Now, besides the library, the Internet was an easy and copious source of information at the touch of my finger tips. With the evolution of Internet and subsequent birth of Yahoo, Google and such search engines, access to information grew exponentially. Ideas in one part of the world could flow to you almost overnight.  Those ideas impacted social as well as scientific, academic and every other activity in the country. However having access to information was one thing and having the ability to implement those ideas through physical, tangible things was quite another. Access to tools, implements and material was still regulated and hard to come by.

In the mid 2000s, things started changing such that access to physical objects became easier. Internet banking coupled with Ebay, Flipkart, Amazon and such e-commerce sites, changed things almost overnight. So much so, that majority of well-healed Indians found it easier to shop on the Internet than go to a physical store to fulfill their material needs.

In the second decade of this millennium, the access to Internet as well as Internet assisted material purchasing mechanism has led to something quite dramatic – the democratization of access to information as well as material objects has percolated down to people of all ages specially in schools and colleges. A cookery enthusiast in North India in the 90s would find it near impossible to cook say, the 'Paniyaram', a South Indian delicacy, which requires a special vessel. Today one can fulfill that need over Flipkart/Amazon almost instantly. While we may rue the harmful impact of Facebook and WhatAspp on the lives of young people, an aspect of this ease of access, that is undeniable in importance, is the flow of ideas regarding what a kid of comparable age is doing in countries across the globe! She is not only Facebook’ing or WhatAss’ing, but is also putting the Internet to good use towards enhancing her STEM education. Young people in India are not insulated from such ideas and activities.

Given this scenario, what should our schools and colleges do? They could remain mute spectators to this development and pretend that they are the sole repository of knowledge and scientific skills only to find the rug pulled from under their feet, so to say. Thankfully, the Government of India has shown alacrity in recognizing the growing trend of ‘making’ things on your own and ‘tinkering’ in general. The idea of ‘digital manufacturing’ that is staring in our face will leave us further impoverished unless we wake up to it's potential as well as the threat it poses. Digital manufacturing refers to the concept of transaction of blueprint/design of a product over the Internet assisted by local manufacturing facility that reduces transportation costs and delays and allows people in any corner of the country to have access to material and products of their choice, unlimited and unshackled by the physical distribution mechanisms.

The Government of India has started ‘Atal Tinkering Labs’ in lot of schools (~ 5000 schools as of July 2018) but given the limited resources, it cannot reach each and every young person in the country. But every young person can see what is happening in their more affluent neighborhood and across the world and if she can afford, she would start making things on her own, cocking a snook at the established ‘centres of knowledge’ and reduce them to mere certificate distribution centres.

The inevitability of being useless and redundant is facing our schools and colleges and they better sit up, take note and adapt. The biggest stakeholder of the school and college ecosystem - the teacher is facing a big threat of being sidelined and rendered useless, unless they learn and adapt the new skills of tinkering. It is no longer good enough to be a physics teacher. All the physics you can teach has already been hijacked by the coaching centres in Kota. What is required is a physics teacher who can not  only teach the concepts but can demonstrate them with a physical implementation. This physical demonstration does more to instill the concepts in a young mind than rote learning. If the teacher does not adapt, the young person in your school may not know more than you but with access to the Internet and Internet assisted banking and e-commerce means they can certainly do much more than you do or has ever done.

These Atal Tinkering Labs started in a small number of schools will only grow. The way computers got introduced in schools in the early 90s should give us a clue. From being objects of novelty then to an established subject today, is how the ‘Tinkering and Making’ activities in schools will also grow. I predict that in a few years, 'Tinkering' will become as mainstream a subject as computer science in schools. How do we want to use them? How do we want our young children to use them? Currently, the Atal Tinkering Labs, without much mentoring support, finds itself with students copying projects off the Internet, the teachers being clueless about state of the technology feel their students have just invented something! While one may frown upon this practice, the fact is at least these students are getting exposed to working with their own hands - a very welcome development in this country!

Eventually, one hopes that the real objective of the Tinkering Labs which should be to enhance science learning, will be understood. That will help absorb 'Tinkering' as a necessary skill/subject in each and every school and that alone has the potential to invent new solutions to solve problems of the Darbhangas and Mumbais of India - deaths due to manual cleaning of sewage drains, farm problems and distress, lack of clean drinking water, roads and flyovers taking years to complete.

The inevitability of tinkering and making things on our own, is surely staring at us and we better prepare now or become complacent, ignore and eventually become redundant – the choice is ours!

Update: This blog is now published on Swarajya Magazine: Tinkering Labs: Why Schools Must Sit Up And Take Note

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.

MSP430 LunchBox
MSP430G2553 & others
CPU Architecture
Operating Voltage
Operating Clock
10 kHz to 16 MHz
Operating Current
4.5 mA @ 16 MHz
Factory UART BSL
Not supported
Supported IDEs
CCS, Energia
Available I/Os
Analog Inputs
PWM Outputs
1 LED, 1 Switch, UART
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.

A single RGB LED
LED Display
4-digit Seven Segment Display
User Input
5-switch Navigation Switch

Capacitive Touch Input
Pulse Wave
IC 7555 based adjustable astable multivibrator

16x2 LCD with Backlight Control switch
Single Pushbutton
4x4 Keypad
PCF8563 RTC with I2C and with Battery backup
Serial Bus
Shift Register with SPI Bus

RTC with I2C Interface

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. 

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


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.


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!