On the 8th July I returned to Aberystwyth with Sophie McDonald to spend 10 days teaching workshops on simple coding and electronics concepts using C programming language and sewable electronics covering for example: parallel / series circuits, switches, how to avoid short circuits, sensors, actuators and an overview of the LilyPad Arduino, for Technocamps.
This was a shorter and more compact experience compared to the 3-day bootcamp we taught during the Easter school holidays with young people from around Aberystwyth. The Easter bootcamp took students on a more in-depth journey through concepts around coding and electronics, where we had time to play with more circuit and code examples using breadboards, and spent an afternoon sewing electronic components into the students’ self-designed circuits – which you can read about here.
The workshops we prepared for this visit were shorter, 3-hour workshops and we presented them to school students, drop-in Technoclub students and home-schoolers of various ages from 8-15 years old. It still included an introduction to wearable technology and covered examples such as Steve Mann’s work in wearable augmented reality that has spanned several decades and I feel charts the miniturisation of technology (in a wearable) over time very well.
The new workshops concentrated more on getting immediate results from coding and electronics, so we pre-sewed the e-textiles side of things before the workshops, which visually took the form of the Welsh Dragon from the flag of Wales, also known as Y Draig Goch (The Red Dragon). The Dragon image was ironed on to tea-towels and then Sophie and I spent over a week sewing the components on so they were all ready to plug into computers upload code and for the students to enjoy experimenting with!
The Red Dragons contained the following components connected via sewn conductive thread: a LilyPad Arduino microcontroller, a LDR (Light Dependent Resistor), parallel LED circuit and fabric switches. Between these components you could do various exercises with various bits of code and combinations of components, so for example with the LDR the students were encouraged to look at the data coming back from the sensor in the serial monitor and change the code accordingly to use the LDR as a light sensitive switch to turn an LED on and off. We also used crocodile clips directly with the LilyPad Arduino, using a resistor and an LED to demonstrate circuits, resistors acting as dam to the flow of electricity, power + to ground -, anode and cathode.
For each class we lead over the 10 days we made small adjustments to the lessons in terms of age and knowledge, plus we played around with the scheduling and timing of the class to try and improve the flow where we felt necessary. We also enquired from accompanying teachers whether the students had already experienced some coding or electronics lessons at school or in the form of after school clubs. Some were familiar with coding and Arduino because they’d sought out to learn these areas themselves or been to a previous Technocamps workshop and it was really inspiring for the other students when these experienced kids chipped in with answers and suggestions in the classes.
Apart from visiting schools and schools coming to Aberystwyth University’s Computer Science Department for workshops from the local area, we also took part in a drop-in Saturday in the Physics Dept, where any youngsters could come along and learn about coding, electronics and robots, plus we ran a workshop for home-schoolers, where the mums stayed and also learned some coding and electronics. I was really impressed by the way the mums threw themselves into getting involved in what the children were being taught. I hope the mums took away that coding and electronics projects aren’t too hard to get up and running, had fun getting involved at the workshop and will carry on learning at home.
We ended the lessons, where there was time, with a short exercise for the students in drawing their own circuits based on ideas they had for pieces of wearable technology, the ideas that were generated were very inspired and the students enjoyed a show and tell of ideas at the end of the workshop.
Our time at Aberystwyth also coincided with iOSDev conference at the university and about 20 conference delegates came to an impromptu demonstration we gave of the Dragons and asked us interesting questions. We also had some cool guest speakers for some of our workshops, we had a talk on the World Wide Web by Roger Boyle, My Life as a Software Engineer by Jonathan Roscoe, a talk about the European Parliament, from MEP for Wales, Derek Vaughan and last but certainly not least a visit from the Welsh Dalek and K9 courtesy of Steve Fearn of the Institute of Maths and Physics at Aberystwyth University.
In conclusion, we found the workshops very rewarding and the students genuinely seemed to get a lot out of them. With the circuits already sewn together by Sophie and I, a lot of time was saved and we packed in the maximum amount of examples and experiments within the three-hour workshops. I feel that all the sewing, slides and preparation that we did upfront and continually reviewed for each new session paid off really well for different age groups, class sizes and types of student. We found we zipped through some parts of the workshops where a few of the students had prior knowledge of coding, electronics or microcontrollers. Plus the students with a little knowledge were able impress their friends and were also eager to help out anyone who needed a bit of extra help or instructions repeating. Classes where students had no prior experience went really well too and to time, as students became confident really quickly with code and electronics when they realised they could get instant results from the electronic components by making adjustments to the code and uploading it to the LilyPad Arduino.
Letting the students experiment and make mistakes in the code to see what works and what doesn’t in terms of learning functions and formatting really helped them get a feel for putting code and electronics together. The circuit drawing session at the end of the workshop got the students thinking about how they could apply what they had learned to personal garments and also how they could be ambitious and stretch their knowledge and experiments.