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Building Boards and Whittling Away at Workshops

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Fundi Bots instructor Timothy Kalule looks on as attendees use a multi-meter to identify transistor type

Since the new lab location opened just one month ago you could say we’ve been busy. That might be a bit of an understatement. Speaking of bits, we went through a couple of drill bits milling a multitude of PCBs on our Othermill. This machine has been humming steadily for about a month now. People are getting the hang of PCB design and the prototypes continue to spring into existence daily. We even delivered a soldering workshop with boards that we milled in house! When we aren’t doing workshops people like Henry Masiriwa and Arnold Ochola are milling transceiver boards, motor drivers, teaching tools and inverters.

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Fundi Bots Lab Manager and instructor Victor Kawagga explains his favorite component, the transistor

The lab’s champion and man who quietly keeps everything running, Victor Kawagga, is getting a taste of what it is like to create curriculum for workshops under a deadline. Our most recent workshop, Introduction to Basic Electronics and Soldering, featured all new material created by Victor and I. While the Othermill churned out PCBs of the Party Light Oscillator circuit that Victor designed, he and I churned out a presentation and a handout. The class covered the basics of circuit creation, breadboarding, multi-meter usage, voltage dividers and components such as resistors, transistors, capacitors, batteries, diodes and switches. We wanted to be sure that people could get a simple, hands on introduction to these components and concepts so we started with a simple LED and worked our way up to a transistor based not-gate with a capacitor to illustrate slowing down a circuit’s signal. Analogies included culturally pertinent examples such as the insulating material in a capacitor being busy traffic, ground being a chapati vendor and the electrons in a charging capacitor as people piling up on the other side of the street because they smell the delicious chapati. Only after a plethora of examples and activities like this did we put together Victor’s Party Light Oscillator on the breadboard. After the circuit was complete we moved to the back of the classroom where the students soldered their components to the boards we had milled using the Othermill. At the end of the day everyone walked away with a circuit that lit up LEDs, blinking faster and faster as the sun goes down.

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Workshop attendees gather around a transistor based Not-Gate

Previously, the Fundi Space held one other workshop which was open to the public, an Introduction to Processing class, designed to introduce people to JAVA based programming through graphics and animation. The class was fun for everyone who attended, some, like the lawyer and artist in the front row were programming for the first time, while other, seasoned programmers, were getting a refresher on some concepts (and a few more difficult challenges that I always keep in my back pocket for the Speedy Suzies and Big Brained Bobbies of the class). By the end of that class everyone had created an image of a cat or dog they could move around with the arrow keys along with some basic animation. I’m a firm believer that everyone and every moment has a teacher inside of them and the class didn’t disappoint. I walked away with an added analogy to my ever growing list- a new way to teach event handlers!

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Fundi Bot member Cathy Tushabe gets an introduction to Bluetooth and GUI creation

During the days at the Fundi Space we continued to hold more relaxed workshops as a reward for the hard work the Fundis put in to keep the outreach going. I had dabbled with the idea of doing some Bluetooth/GUI tutorials and workshops at SparkFun before I left, but it had never really coalesced into a cohesive unit. Guess what the Fundis were eager to learn about? Guess what technology we just happened to have a set of twenty units? Bluetooth it was! Starting from scratch (somehow in the shuffle between SparkFun and Africa I had lost my code and half created presentation, imagine that!) I put together a brief introduction to creating GUIs in Processing and then connecting the GUI to a microcontroller via Bluetooth. Despite some stops and starts with Windows 7 and Administrator access we got the circuits up and running. After we were able to blink LEDs over Bluetooth I challenged the Fundis to connect a servo. Previously I had experienced issues with interrupts between the Arduino Servo library and SoftwareSerial, luckily that issue has been fixed and after a little effort our Fundis emerged victorious from battle with servos and Bluetooth! Our next steps will be to go back over the Processing code to make sure the Fundis feel comfortable creating basic buttons, sliders and adding a more versatile hand shake that auto-identifies the Serial Port to which the Bluetooth unit is connected. Then I’ll trick, er… wrangle… er volunteer our communications guru, Henry, into helping Victor and I create more presentation materials to teach Bluetooth before I leave Uganda in November. After all, Henry was the man who, starting fresh from a blank breadboard, reproduced the Bluetooth work from the previous class a couple days later, running out of the lab holding his circuits while I clicked away furiously in his Processing sketch to do some range testing.

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Students at St. Kizito S. S. Bugolobi worked with microcontrollers and discussed creating a solar array

Speaking of range testing, not all of the Fundi Bots workshops are taking place inside the lab. We headed out to St. Kizito S. S. Bugolobi to teach their Robotics Club’s second class on microcontrollers. Solomon King had done an excellent job teaching the basics of Arduino during the previous workshop but, while there were around ten who had attended the previous workshop, there were 40 – 50 students who had not attended. We distributed the ones who had attended previously amongst the groups and pushed forward with eager pupils crowding around computers. That day we got through an introduction to Arduino, voltage dividers and even had time to connect a photo-resistor to a servo, sparking a conversation about solar arrays and how one might design one. The want and drive in the classroom was evident, Physics teacher and Deputy Obua Gasper looked on with a knowing smile on his face. If even a quarter of the students present at that alone workshop wind up working as engineers, bio-tech specialists or green technology entrepreneurs I know that my time in Uganda will have been well spent.

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Co-instructor Arnold Ochola and I kidding around before class (Note Arnold’s sweet “safety glasses”)

I have often stated that “investment in your friends pays the best dividends.” What is a stranger but the opportunity of friendship? What do we have more precious to invest than our time? Few things in life can equal or surpass the reward of the joy I see in people’s eyes when I help them unlock a world of possibilities by lighting up an LED, spinning a servo or communicating via wireless. The one aspect of teaching that does exceed this is that same investment compounded by time and a student’s own drive. It is my hope that down the path of my life I will run into some of those I have taught- that they will regale and astound me with stories of innovation, fabrication, education and inspiration surpassing the moments I get to glimpse in my classrooms.