This is a pretty geeky post… You’ve been warned.
Among the courses I teach is electronics. It is a one semester course, where we cover basic theory in the first half of the semester and students breadboard circuits for the second half of the semester. I inherited the course and its general structure from the previous electronics teacher and it seems to work pretty well.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about changing it. I’ve been wanting to incorporate microprocessors into the course for some time, but I’ve been daunted with either the price tag or for the cheap stuff with the technical know-how that I just don’t have. By bringing in microprocessors I can also get students doing some programming . Additionally, a lot of electronics these days includes embedded microprocessors.
Enter the PICAXE and Arduino micro-controllers. Both can be had relatively cheaply and are fairly easy to program. Unfortunately I discovered these at about the same time. If I only knew about one of them I’d have been content to buy a bunch and get to work redesigning my course. As it stands right now, I have no idea which one to choose. So I’m writing this post to get my ideas down and I’m partly hoping for some insight from potential experts.
PICAXE: The PICAXE micro-controller is a Pic based chip that has a bootloader loaded onto it allowing for a very simply programming cable to be used. It can be programmed using a form of basic or with a flow chart based interface. There are some great guides online for its use, but they’d have to be edited a bit to make them usable for my course. There are multiple versions of this chip with different numbers of inputs/outputs. The programming is slightly different from chip to chip.
Pros: Cost. The chip (8M) itself costs less than $4. Theoretically students could easily make permanent projects with this. Basic programming: I know basic and basic programming is relatively easy.
Cons: The 8M, the chip I’d focus on, is a bit limited. There are other chips we could add in, but their structure is different. Apparently limited availability. I’d really have to plan ahead to ensure I had the supplies I’d need (unless I want to order from the UK). Windows only.
Arduino: This board is really a Basic Stamp replacement. I’d thought it was going to be outside of the price range I’d set for the course, but then I found a supplier who supplies a version that I can get for $11/board in bulk. The programming for this chip is in a C++ like language. There is also a lot online support for this board and at least one project designing a course in basic electronics with the Arduino as the platform.
Pros: Expandability. This chip has some wickedly cool potential. It interfaces circuitry directly with a computer easily, making it possible to create circuits that control or respond to functions on the computer. Support for Mac, WinXP, and Linux.
Cons: I don’t know C++ or any other object oriented programming language. More expensive so it would cost more for students to make permanent projects.
I guess the bottom line is the PICAXE is probably simpler to start using but while the Arduino has a steeper learning curve at the start it allows for more advanced functions more easily. At least I think. Right now I’m leaning towards the Arduino. I’ve already got one independant student working with the PICAXE. I’ll get a couple working with the Arduino this semester as well and see what they all think.