Technology - Click and create

29th January 2010 at 00:00
Interactive design is a whole lot easier thanks to electronics prototyping tools such as Arduino

What do a microphone which doubles as a breathalyser, a laser harp and a cycling jacket with built-in indicators have in common?

They were all built using Arduino, an open-source electronics prototyping platform. Now, before you all run screaming the other way, Arduino is designed to be accessible for people who have little background in electronics.

In fact, the original point behind its creation was to help pupils learn interactive design without blowing up the electronics equipment. Making mistakes and tinkering are key principles which drive the movement. Being open source means that the software is freely available, free to distribute and can be adapted and shared by anyone as part of an ongoing open collaboration.

So how does this technology work? At the heart of it is the Arduino board, which can be attached to sensors, switches and other electrical components. It uses micro-controllers which can be programmed using an Arduino programming language. This means a lot of the physical or complex electronics work can be replaced by programming code that you can write yourself, or copy from other people's projects.

Arduino is not the only platform out there which is doing this kind of thing; other examples are Parallax and Phidgets. Technologies of this type have huge potential for education. Apart from the obvious links to curriculum subjects such as art or design and technology, using open-source platforms can develop less subject-specific skills such as digital literacy. By designing, constructing - and sometimes deconstructing - digital objects, children can gain a deeper insight into technology than they can by simply using it.

The open-source community can be very supportive to newcomers. Faced with ways to make budgets stretch further, open-source software and communities can be a cost-effective way for teachers to engage with innovative and exciting technologies.

One of the reasons that Arduino is well suited to the arts and design community is its flexibility, as almost any electronic device can be made to work with it. This can present a challenge for teachers, however, as it means clear learning outcomes have to be established when using it in the classroom.

A second barrier to using Arduino is lack of familiarity with the programming language, which can take some effort to learn. That said, there is plenty of code that can be copied and pasted from existing projects which people have shared over the internet.

Seaweed Studio, in the US, has experimented with running workshops to explore how Arduino can be used with children aged from eight to 11. They tried a "toy hacking workshop": taking an existing product, such as a talking soft toy, and adapting or changing it to make something new, such as a sunlight-activated alarm clock. This kind of activity can make children think critically about objects by seeing them in a different way, and can be a creative and rewarding process.

So if you are interested in working with interactive art or design with your pupils, looking for a new flexible tool, or want to engage with an exciting open-source movement, it may be worth checking out platforms such as Arduino.

Kieron Kirkland is a researcher at education research and development charity Futurelab,


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