Introduction to the Arduino guide series

What is the Arduino?

This is the first article of the “Getting Started” series, where you will learn about the Arduino history.

This is the first article of the “Getting Started” series, where you will learn about the Arduino history. It’s even become a movie (well, ok, a documentary)!

Let’s begin...

I’m Peter, Chief Tech Explorer at Tech Explorations. I hope that this course will benefit you in two ways:

First, help you get started on your Arduino adventures, and over time assist you in your study of electronics.

Second, to give you a taste of my content and teaching style, with minimal effort required on your part.

And today, you will start with the short history and context of the technology education phenomenon, the Arduino.

But first, I want to dispel a myth. The myth is that, to learn electronics and to become a Maker, you need to be a naturally-born tech wizard.

This is important because a common complaint I hear from my students is that “I am not good with technology” or “my mind can’t think like a computer.”

Unless you can deal with inner inhibitions such as these, it will be very hard, almost impossible, to become good at anything that matters. There will always be an excuse.

Lack of learning inhibitions is one significant reason why children can learn so fast. There are other reasons, of course, but children, in general, haven’t had time to develop defenses against learning. Everything is new, and as long as it doesn’t look scary, as long as it’s inherently interesting, children will go for it and learn.

What I have seen in my work with thousands of students, in my University career and at Tech Explorations, is that a learner’s learning capacity is dampened primarily by negative prior experiences (like a bad experience in a classroom) or cultural accepted (but unexamined) norms (like “girls are not as good as boys in robotics”).

How can you deal with something like this? How can you start to remove such inhibitions?

In my experience, you can do this in three steps:

  1. Accept that these inhibitors exist (they do).
  2. Accept that your capacity to learn is intact (it is).
  3. Find convincing proof that counters each inhibitor (it exists).

I have been fortunate enough to have known some amazing people over the years:

A retired 65-yo ex-police officer who had never programmed in his life until (in retirement), he decided to challenge himself with an Arduino. Now, he makes his own 3D printer and other gadgets.

A brilliant engineer with a severe mobility disability, who made her life’s mission to create robotic technologies to assist people with mobility difficulties. 

A pastor-teacher who reinvented himself as a STEM mentor powered by the Arduino because he believed that quality technology education allows his students to lead a fulfilling life.

These examples, and many more, show that learning is possible, as long as it is desired, and the right conditions exist. Each of the people in the examples had “valid” reasons to not learn. The ex-police officer could have considered his lack of prior programming experience and age to choose golf instead of electronics. The engineer with the mobility disability could have chosen a life dependent on support services instead of pursuing her studies despite her body’s deteriorating condition. And the pastor-teacher could have decided that STEM education is reserved for specialists.

At Tech Explorations, our mission is to help you create the conditions that can help you learn how to use the Arduino, regardless of where you are starting. Our courses provide a structured and distraction-free environment that can help you to focus on the task.

What you have to do is to make the decision that you want to learn, accept that you can learn, and create an environment that is right for you to do so. Our courses may (but don’t have to) be part of your learning environment.

Ok, now that we have the mindset sorted, let’s get into the Arduino.

What is the Arduino?

Let’s start at the very beginning. What is the Arduino, and where did it begin?

The Arduino is not a single thing. It is a prototyping platform. The platform is a collection of hardware, software, workflows (ways of doing things), and support networks (places where you can find help and information) designed to help people create prototypes (and often, finished products) very quickly.

All of these components are open source, meaning that their designs and source code is available for anyone to copy and use.

At the center of the Arduino platform is a microcontroller chip.

A microcontroller is like a processor in your computer, except that it is very cheap, slower, and it has many connectors for peripherals like sensors and switches.

As a result, microcontrollers are great for sensing and controlling applications, and you find them everywhere: in your toaster, fridge, alarm system, in your car, printer, and paper shredder.

An early Arduino. It uses the RS232 serial interface instead of USB, an ATMEGA8, and male pin headers instead of female. The large black chip at the bottom right of the board is the microcontroller.

An early Arduino. It uses the RS232 serial interface instead of USB, an ATMEGA8, and male pin headers instead of female. The large black chip at the bottom right of the board is the microcontroller.

The Arduino was created by educators and students at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Ivrea, Italy. Massimo Banzi, one of the founders, was one of the instructors at Ivrea. At the time, students were using expensive hardware to build their micro-controller based creations.

The Ivrea students and their instructors decided to build their microcontroller platform by using a popular “AVR” microcontroller from Atmega, and a light version of the Wiring development platform written by (then student) Hernando Barragan.

Wiring influenced the development of what we now call the “Arduino Language.”

The Arduino Language is, in fact, a simplified version of the C++ language. C++ is a general-purpose programming language used in the world’s most critical infrastructure, virtually all operating systems, desktop, and smartphone applications. Learning a bit of C++ is definitely not a waste of time.

The Arduino Integrated Development Environment (IDE) is also inherited from Wiring.

What the Arduino borrowed from Wiring made the platform easy to use so that people who are not engineers can build sophisticated microcontroller-based gadgets.

Tomorrow, we’ll be delving into useful resources for Arduino makers. These are places where you can look for inspiration and help as you get deeper into your Arduino prototyping adventures.

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