So You Want to Learn How to Electronic

I first encountered the world of the Maker through the magic of the Cruciatus Curse.

For a little back story– I was in the ninth grade, and of course dangerously obsessed with the world of Harry Potter. The second Deathly Hallows was about to come out, and I was inconsolably excited. I had decided that I was going to go in costume, which everybody knows requires a pretty cool wand to top it off.

wand
Photo by KaptinScarlet.

 

After finding an incredible instructable for Harry Potter wands on the internet I got to work. After finishing my wand, however, I decided that it need a little more pizazz, so I installed a small water balloon in the base and made it capable of shooting BB’s so I could effectively bring the Cruciatus Curse to the premiere.

That night was awesome. And I was hooked.

Fourteen year old me, still not completely convinced that my Hogwarts letter had not gotten lost in the mail, had found something even more magical. I realized I could just MAKE the things I wanted. With the power of DIY, I could look cool (which by the way, was quite a challenge for me at this point in time), save money and smite my enemies!? I was sold.

After some time though, the world of paper craft and duct tape creations began to get old and I decided that I needed to take my skills to the next level to advance my ideas.

Then life happened. And while I maintained the enthusiasm of idealistic youth, between other interests, lack of time, and clinical aversion to math I spent much of my dedicated tech-time in abject frustration. I had the ideas, and the motivation, but my lack of technical skill kept those ideas from doing anything but burning frustrating holes in my many Moleskine notebooks.

So I did what many people in my position do. I got out there. I followed all the tech blogs. I checked out a couple local makerspaces. I purchased some entry-level microcontrollers.

And next thing you know, I was stepping into my ludicrously high-paid position at Google working on the next iPhone Galaxy 15 and watching people cower before me at just the sight of my super-professional laminated nametag.

….Okay, maybe not quite.

To be honest, I really did immerse myself in the tech world. However while I maybe wasn’t expecting quite a Google-level job (at least not right off the bat–don’t get me wrong, we all have dreams), I was pretty disappointed with, well, how hard it ended up being.

uno
Photograph and hours of angsty 14-year old frustration courtesy of Arduino.

It turns out I was not able to learn the Arduino Uno in two hours. Or even two days. At the end of two weeks I was resisting the urge to hurl it out my bedroom window and go purchase some knitting needles. This hobby clearly wasn’t for me. And boy did that make me mad.

I was infuriated. Completely, childishly, and decisively ticked off.

How dare Arduino be so difficult! Do they even know who I am? This is Miranda Hansen were talking about here, honorary recipient of the 4th grade “Best Macaroni Necklace in the Class” award, so don’t even think about telling me I don’t know how to make things. I had a teacher tell me once I had potential, for crying out loud.

But unfortunately, as I was to learn, self-righteous anger does not have a direct correlation with electronic skill acquisition.

No matter how much time I spent glaring at my microcontroller, it never did magically jump up and shape-shift into the perfect manifestation of my ideas.

And while I knew there that was a wealth of online resources for this type of learning, I found myself largely unwilling to spend the time it would take to read the tutorials and theory, preferring to instead invest in wishful thinking and prayer.

And when that was shockingly unsuccessful, I rage-packed up the box, and closed the lid on what I thought was my electronics career.

kit
It looks so innocent (From Sparkfun.com).

However, after a couple of months, when my hate fire had died down a bit, I found myself opening back up my SparkFun Inventor’s Kit. I still had no idea how I was going to go about figuring it out. But with a more level head I realized that even though I was apparently not the next great tech prodigy, there was still a chance I could learn this.

I understood that in the beginning, I had equated lack of immediate success with failure, and I was so intimidated by the vast information online that I felt completely incapable of making progress. I had felt adrift.

Do I need to learn code first? If so, what language? And then how do electronics work? Do I need to build a circuit board myself? How in the heck do I ever hope to integrate these two completely foreign concepts?

So I just started. I began reading and practicing, working my way through simple online tutorials. I accepted that my first project would not maybe not be a Custom Built Eyewriter or Giant Laser Harp.

harp
Harry Potter has nothing on Make Magazine.

And somewhere between If statements and Ohm’s Law I realized something.
I was actually making some progress.

This time, though, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of resources online, I felt encouraged. I found a few particularly excellent resources for learning the basics of code, as well as some very accessible tutorials for microcontrollers.

I understood that while it’s always good to have a specific idea of what you’re trying to learn, it is never really harmful to end up accidently learning something that doesn’t end up being relevant to your project or goal. And that one does not actually need to be a tech whiz to be able to make something cool.

Soon, the relationship between the code and the electronics began to take identifiable shape in my mind, and I began to get a real feel for how the microcontrollers worked. I started cobbling online code together to make it do something new, and then eventually I was writing my own.

And slowly but surely my own ideas began to come to life.

Which was SO much fun. 10/10 stars, would recommend.

And the best part is I can recommend it! Even better I can even extend my recommending into some specific places to start, and resources that one may find helpful.

Learning and Tutorials:

Make Magazine’s Maker Camp (Begins June 6th!)

Adafruit Learning (Uses Arduino)

CodeAcademy (Great for learning basic coding concepts)

Electronics Supplies:

Digilent’s microcontroller and FPGA boards are an excellent place to get your electronics start.

Good beginner FPGA board:

Basys 3, or if you are feeling a little more advanced, the Nexys 4 DDR is more industry standard.

FPGAs typically use Verilog or VHDL to code.

Good beginner microcontroller board:

The chipKIT uC32 is a good bare bones place to start, and the chipKIT WF32 is slightly more advanced but has built in WiFi.

Microcontrollers typicially code in C/C++.

Also check out our ZYBO board, which is more of compromise between the FPGA and microcontrollers and runs on Linux!

 

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About Miranda Hansen

I enjoy creative writing, engineering, thinking, building, exploring and sharing with people. Huge aficionado of spending time thinking about things that “don’t matter.” I am very interested in unconstrained creativity. I love cross-discipline ideas and all of their integration into complete original systems. And I like things that do things.

View all posts by Miranda Hansen →

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