We have developed a workshop to guide pre-university students in using open-source electronic prototyping platform Arduino to build their ideas. The aim is to train students in the use of free hardware and software that enable them to create interactive electronic objects such as microcontrollers. The workshop targets secondary-school students in south-west Uruguay who have limited access to technology.

While one of the workshop objectives is to democratise access to the technology, it can also help inform pre-university students’ future career aspirations. Developed as part of the Technology to Support Learning Project financed by the United States Embassy in Uruguay and the Technological University of Uruguay (UTEC) with support from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the workshops are held in person on UTEC’s campus in Fray Bentos. Starting in August 2021, seven face-to-face workshops have now been held with a total of 216 participants from nine public and private educational institutions.

The workshop has two main aims:

  • to broaden access to and familiarity with digital tools in areas of the country where this can be a challenge and to use the technology to support effective pedagogy and improve learning outcomes
  • to help all young people regardless of gender or social status to start interacting with these tools, since technological literacy is a fundamental component of future success.

No prior experience in programming or electronics is necessary; the aim of the workshop is to introduce students to these tools.

Keep it practical and collaborative

To train students in the design and creation of electronic prototypes using open-source microprocessors, we focused on learning by doing, collaboration for design and teamwork. The workshop was kept to three hours with students split into teams of up to four people tasked with a series of activities and challenges. The workshop was divided into four stages: connection, discovery, team challenge and touching ground.

Connection: Since the class is based on group projects, it is important to help students connect. To facilitate this, we form a circle and ask each student to tell the whole group a few things about themselves, such as what they study, why they came to class, if they have any prior experience with technology, and what their favourite food or video game is. To further facilitate social mobility within the group, we employ simple group activities often used by improvisational theatre companies to open up dialogue, build bonds, and help students shed some of their nerves and egos. Activities we use include Red Ball, in which players pretend to throw objects around a circle, and Samurai, which involves throwing imaginary swords.

Discovery: This is when teams are introduced to the Arduino kits and asked to identify the components via internet research. This generates discussion within each team. Having generated curiosity, we then offer guided instruction on the basics of using Arduino, encouraging those with prior experience to participate as leaders of one or several teams in order to incorporate peer learning. Tutors take on a mediating role that fosters autonomy and facilitates meaningful learning. With activities that steadily increase in complexity and difficulty, the workshop can guide teams to making basic prototypes with resistors, LEDs and sensors in a very short time. These include getting to know the Arduino board; turning on LEDs; and learning about a circuit and programming of a traffic light as a guided challenge, then changing its parameters. Later we work with a RGB (red, green, blue) LED and finally introduce sensors through a sound sensor.

Team challenge: As a final challenge, the teams choose a component of the kit, the one that most caught their attention, and make it work. The teams need to pool their knowledge and skills to complete this task. Once their component is working, the teams present their work to the rest of the group, explaining how they solved the problems presented to them.

Touching the ground: The workshop ends with a visit to UTEC’s Mechatronics Engineering Laboratory for students to see what they learned in action. Laboratory staff host a talk to demonstrate how electronics programming forms the basis of everything in the laboratory. They present machinery, including robotic arms, with which the students can interact. This brings everything learned to life and encourages participants to maintain their interest after the workshop.

For more than 75 per cent of students who have completed the workshops, it was their first contact with an open-source microcontroller. Participants who said they did not like electronics were motivated to engage with activities due to a commitment and responsibility to their team. During the workshops, components of the kits have been broken or lost, yet this makes us happy as it is proof that many hands tried and experimented with these parts. These workshops offer students a chance to experience something new before they decide on their future direction.

Jorge N Gutiérrez is a professor of physics and thermodynamics at the Technological University of Uruguay (UTEC).

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