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Teaching in Uganda, Hitting the Ground Running

First things first- Before class every day, be they informal gatherings where we tinker or formal trainings such as the Xbee class I describe below, it’s important to start the day with a healthy breakfast. IMG_20140811_091950604_HDR

This is what breakfast tends to look like for me in Uganda

Xbee class- Tuesday, July 29th, 2014 (If this gets too technical just let your eyes glaze over until you get to the video, that’s the good stuff.) This was the first official Fundi’s class of my 2014 Uganda trip. The students were comprised of six Ugandans, one female. All of them college age. Two electrical engineering students (one of them a woman) one bio/tech guy, one software guy, one mechanical engineering student and Victor, my co-teacher/lab manager who is also a mechanical & electrical engineer. victorsoldering

Victor Kawagga, an ace up the sleeve for Fundi Bots, sharpens his SMD soldering skills

I hardly ever teach Xbee. It’s a hard class to teach, radios are sometimes unpredictable and they require a working knowledge of microcontrollers since each radio has a microcontroller buried in its package. Even people who regularly work with Xbees have a tough time with them. Why did I decide to start the 3.5 months of classes in Uganda with them? I didn’t. The students did. I asked them what they wanted to learn and they chose the 3 toughest concepts I had included in the ten possible classes I would teach that first week. Some teachers might say something to temper the lust for knowledge with caution in order to protect egos. Others might line up a ramp of some type with easier concepts and hardware first before tackling the more advanced concepts…. I just said, “Cool. Let’s do it.” FundisInAction

Fundi Bot Superstars Mackenzie Tuhirirwe and Henry Masiriwa in the lab

We had 4 hours and I outlined 3 projects– Basic chat, a doorbell project using a microcontroller and then, removing the microcontroller, a similar doorbell project using the microcontrollers embedded in the Xbee radios. I figured we could cover PWM output, mesh networking, AT commands via serial and API with series 2 Xbees at a later date.   We only got through chat.   They loved it. It was important for them to experience the slight frustration at the beginning and work the “whys” and “hows” out for themselves. It definitely would have set a bad precedent is everything had worked flawlessly from the beginning, the Fundi team would expect everything to be as easy as plug and play. We wound up talking about electrical fields, sum checks, prototyping, teaching tips and tricks, serial communication, the importance of communication protocol and even the necessity of leadership hierarchy (An Xbee coordinator metaphor). Other analogies we covered included- Xbee routers as women in village who are gossips and repeat whatever anyone else says. Signal interference is when these women lie or “forget” to tell you the whole story, which is why a sum check or alternative communication is so important. (In the non-technical world this is known as verifying information with a neighbor who isn’t quite so nosy.) By the end of the class everyone was in high spirits, we had a success. We didn’t push forward but modified aspects of that success. (changing channels and pan Ids) I was surprised to see not everything worked as I thought and I was puzzled. I didn’t bother to hide it, either. Honesty is far too valuable a currency in the classroom to squander it trying to appear as an all-knowing self important fountain (I could have used some other words here, but I didn’t) of knowledge. In the end the important thing is that everyone had a lot of fun. Even more importantly, I’m training these people to teach and learn. I showed them that you can fail (momentarily), push forward despite it (because of it?) and still succeed. People were inspired and after I promised to show them everything else I had outlined, plus more in a couple of weeks, they were chomping at the bit in anticipation of the second day. We also talked about the importance of understanding how to be humble, yet productive, work through problems, address our own (my) faults and the incredible importance of workshop dry runs. Soft skills are often overlooked in the technical field. What a team! One of the mechanical engineers has to bike for a couple of hours to get home. Something tells me he’ll be back for almost every class. (And he has been!) FundiTransformer

Sometimes your transformer can’t handle the glory of three Heaterizersso of course you crack it open to see if you can fix it

Prep time that morning was spent soldering together Xbee shields and collecting hardware. As we soldered the headers onto the hardware I thought to myself, I gotta get these guys some better soldering iron tips. I, someone who has taught countless people how to solder (literally, I have no clue what so ever how many people I have taught that particular skill), had a hard time until one of the other soldering irons in the same outlet strip was turned off. This upped the electricity available to the iron and it got a little easier after that. A little. I remarked that they should be proud of doing so much with the equipment they have. It was damn hard for me, someone who is fairly experienced with a soldering iron, to work with what they take for granted. Cathy, the female electrical engineer in training, helped me with Windows 8 when I encountered an issue on another student’s machine. Troll me if you like, but I’ve moved from PCs to Macs in the past couple years and the unsigned driver fix for Windows 8 can be a little confusing if you’ve never used the OS. VictorTalking

Victor talks to the students at his old school, Kyambogo, about a robot he built

I’ve brought a bunch of hardware with me so I was extremely excited to get started at the speed with which we covered material in the first week! It’s week three now and the only reason you haven’t heard from me before this on is that the pace hasn’t slowed down since then!

Some of our activities during my first week back in Kampala, Uganda

The Xbee radio class was only the second day I have been with the Fundi Bots group. We’ve been doing a whole lot more since then. Here’s a brief summary of the rest of the first week that I posted to my Facebook page:

Busy week. Planning meeting, demo day and meeting the team on Monday. Xbee radio communication for Tuesday workshop. A talk at a local Ugandan school about robotics and how they can start their own robotics club (which we’ll support) on Wednesday with Solomon King, Betty Kituyi and Vic Paul. Processing with Serial Communication and basic Arduino sensors during Thursday workshop. Introduction to PCB layout and starting to figure out our own particular set of production quandaries today with six extremely motivated Fundi Bots all stars. Sticking to my exercise regiment, navigating a new city and the only packaged food I’ve eaten all week are the breakfast sausages and a couple crackers. All day workshop tomorrow at an all girl’s school in Gayaza, Uganda, inventory day on Sunday… oh yeah and I’ve started to teach myself Python in the free time when I’m not playing with tech I never had the time to before. Because somehow I do now. Life is good.”


At the training in Gayaza forty young women spent an afternoon working with microcontrollers for the first time

Interested in helping out? Hit me up and I’ll let you know how you can! We can find a way to utilize just about any resource. From radio interviews (thanks KGNU!) to scrap PCBs for teaching rework (thanks SparkFun!) to donated classroom kits (thanks Texas Instruments and Leo Innovations!) and there’s even a scholarship in the works (thanks Lenore!). I love figuring out how puzzle pieces fit together, if you’ve got a resource or an idea that you’re not sure would be useful I’d love to try and figure out a way to tie it in with our work here in Uganda!