Last year, Michael Shiloh, an engineer, tinkerer and lecturer at Bay Area colleges, co-taught an advanced architecture class at California College of the Arts that posed an unusual challenge to students: build a non-standard 3D printer in just one semester.
The class, which was by no means composed of traditional engineering students, came up with some interesting answers. One extruded clay, while another dripped solvent onto foam to create shapes. Another was affixed to the back of a hexapod robot:
“They succeeded in building these machines in one semester,” Shiloh said. “They exceeded my expectations wildly.”
Ten years ago, it would have been a little bit crazy to ask an architecture student to build a robot. Shiloh, who is the education coordinator for Arduino, said there used to be only two choices if you wanted to work with complex electronics: study engineering and become an electrical engineer, or hire an engineer to do it for you. The appearance of affordable, accessible microcontrollers like Arduino over the last decade has totally changed that.
Arduino’s big appeal, aside from costing as little as $30, is that it hides all of the messy details of working with electronics, Shiloh said. You don’t need to know what’s going on at the base level in order to get started. But it’s also open source, which means you are free to dig around in and alter the way it works if you want to.
Mitch Altman, a co-founder of the Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco, travels the world teaching people how to solder and use microcontrollers, among other tools. He said he’s able to get people started on Arduino in less than 90 minutes, including children as young as six years old.
“There are about 100,000 projects online that anyone can download for free to do all sorts of amazing things — anywhere from a robot controller, a flying machine controller, awesome blinky-lights, TV-B-Gone remote control, music and noise-makers and even making your toilet tweet when it flushes,” Altman said. “The possibilities are endless.”
The 100,000 projects come from a community of users dedicated to sharing their creations. Jeremy Blum, author of “Exploring Arduino,” said that because Arduino is open source and a casual prototyping tool, it inherently attracts people who want to share their projects.
“As a result of that, you get this huge corpus of knowledge and design that you can build off of,” Blum said. “It’s standing on the shoulders of giants. It keeps going and keeps going until you’re able to make something that’s relatively complex, something that if you didn’t have a ton of knowledge would have been impossible 10 years ago. You can really jump into the advanced stuff.”
Blum said Arduino’s ability to get inexperienced users interested right away can have an unexpected effect: It convinces them to then dig deeper into how it works, exposing them to more complex concepts. People who might have been scared away from taking theory-heavy engineering classes in college suddenly have a hands-on application that makes them interested.
It’s exposing people to engineering at a younger age too. Blum, who is 23, said the platform has contributed to children today learning far differently than his peers ever did.
“When they get excited (about a new topic), they go on YouTube and learn more. They say ‘I want to learn that,’ and they just do it. I can’t imagine doing that as a kid. It wasn’t really possible yet,” Blum said. “The audience is really young, which I never would have expected. There are literally eight year olds completing a project in my book that I was only able to do five years ago.”
Interested in getting started with Arduino? Shiloh said not to be afraid.
“I get a lot of people coming to my classes and saying they bought Arduino some time ago and they’ve been afraid to plug it in because they don’t want to break anything,” Shiloh said, laughing. “It’s pretty hard to do any damage. I’ve never yet run into somebody who can’t do this.”