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Data Harvest's Solo PIC programming system Prices start from pound;79, Data Harvest. Tel: 01525 373666.

Flowol is a very useful software tool that enables students to understand more easily the process of control and the use of flowcharts as a means of modelling control. The introduction of Data Harvest's PIC system has extended this useful tool. Supplied with a programming unit, LCD display panel, prototype board and inter-linking leads, the system was connected together using the guide contained in three instruction manuals - two would have sufficed for existing Flowol users. The boards come with the soldered backing tracks exposed, carrying a risk of short-circuiting. We mounted them on a backing board to prevent this.

Flowol (v2.9 and higher) has been updated to include commands that can be used with the PIC system, and the interface menu accessible within Flowol includes Flowgo, Fischertechnik, Lego Dacta, Deltronics and Commotion units.

To get the system up and running, the serial port of the PC is attached to the "communicator" unit and a two-line LCD display. These are then linked into the prototype board. Programming takes place on the computer screen using Flowol, which can quickly be mastered by most KS3 students.

The simulated flowchart, once perfected, is downloaded into the board and its PIC chip. Spare boards for use in student projects can be bought with a PIC chip already fitted, or the chip alone could be wired into a student-designed PCB to reduce costs. Data Harvest supplies coded chips that will accept the downloaded Flowol data and also supply a "coder" if cheaper blank PIC chips are to be used. Two prototype boards are available; one having seven outputs (with two bidirectional motor controls) and four inputs (Solo 18 prototype board) and the other having eight outputs (with four bidirectional motor controls) and eight inputs. (Solo 28 prototype board).

Add-ons to the system include a temperature probe, a tilt sensor and a light-level monitor, but digital switches of any kind can be wired into the easily used 4mm clip-down sockets that are used on both input and output sides of the board. A variety of other add-ons with wires attached, such as buzzers, bulbs and motors, are also available.

The documentation supplied assumes familiarity with ICT equipment and technical terms, since the basic instructions are interwoven with the slightly more advanced ones. There may well be a need for a simple overview guide for some - especially for those unfamiliar with Flowol.

Once assembled and operating, the system is easily understood and accessible to students of all ages. The potential for expanding design-and-make projects that interact with the surroundings is excellent, and GCSE students in most strands of technology would benefit from using it. The Solo system is simple, well designed and extremely student friendly. It will almost certainly help to bring successful results immediately.

Bill Richmond is an AST and head of design and technology at St John's School in Epping, Essex

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