I’ve been teaching AP Physics for a while, and had been looking for a way to introduce some project work that would be fun, while extending the topics we were studying in class. I also like playing around with programming, and always thought that the mathematical problem-solving involved was only a short step from the problem-solving in Physics class.
Enter the Arduino board, a cheap and cheerful microprocessor board designed right from the start to let non-engineers make use of computer-control for projects. At around $30 each, they fit a school budget. Programmable in what is basically simplified Java, it’s actually easier to learn than Basic, and kids studying programming in school who know a bit of C or Java pick it up right away. With a breadboard, wire and a few dollars’ worth of electronic parts, you’re on your way to a very cool mashup of art and engineering. Visit the Arduino project website for a detailed look.
My blog entries are a series of lessons using the Arduino to teach physical computing. That’s not computing physics, it’s computer programming directed towards controlling physical objects (i.e. using sensors to make stuff happen), rather than crunching data or producing graphics. It strikes me as a more concrete and satisfying way to teach students computer programming. I got into the idea after reading Tom Igoe’s excellent book on the subject. He also runs a Physical Computing center at New York University, which is an interesting site to hunt around.
If you want to try out these lessons, remember that these were done in the context of a high-school Physics class, so I’m assuming you know (or will go learn) a little bit about basic circuits, how to use a breadboard, and the hazards of a short circuit. Of course when you are new to using breadboards, knowing the hazards of a short circuit does absolutely nothing to reduce the likelihood they’ll happen, but it does allow my students to say “Hey! I made a short-circuit!” instead of “Hey! My Arduino’s smoking!” with a sense of pride. To be fair, we’ve only fried one Arduino in just over a year – but we’ve fried lots of LED’s, so keep extras!
The lessons require an Arduino board, a breadboard, three 220-ohm and 10K-ohm resistors, a 10K potentiometer, three LED’s, a pushbutton switch, a piezo speaker, a 5V DC-controlled relay, a DC motor, and some hookup or jumper wire (24 guage). You probably need to solder hookup wire onto the speaker and motor, so a wire stripper, needle-nose pliers, a soldering iron and some solder are good to have. If you just want to get started fast, Adafruit Industries and Sparkfun have nice Arduino project kits that don’t cost much more than the parts and are pretty much ready to go.
Finally, download and install the Arduino software, for your PC, Mac or Linux machine, and get started!