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I am a Road Tester of the TI-PMLK Buck Experiment Board: TPS54160 & LM3475.

It's an educational kit - board and book - to learn buck converter theory and practice.

Because it's an educational kit, I give minus points each time there's vendor lock-in .

 

 

 

I applied for the Road Test to check the educational value of the kit. The focus in this blog series will be on the Lab Manual and exercises.

 

How Educational Is This?

 

Let's start with the conclusion. This is a great lab kit when you're learning witch-mode power supplies.

It lets you experiment with good designs and stable conditions.

But it also allows you to validate non-optimal situations such as oscillation and instability, 

 

The two different Buck configuration on the board allow to review fully integrated designs (the step-down DC-DC converter - based on a control loop - on the lower part of the PCB) and

circuits with external power transistors (Hysteretic PFET Buck controller).

You can do several of the exercises on any of the two if you like. But the different nature of the two controllers invite you to do a comparison.

And you can probe the gate of the power transistor in the upper board.

 

This kit isn't (and is not intended to be) a tutorial. The expectation is that you understand the mechanism of Buck converters.

That said, everywhere in the book you get pointers to the mechanisms at play for the experiment you're doing. Short theory review and formulas are provided.

 

The book also expects some maturity from the experimenter.

Although not necessary to complete the labs, you're challenged to review the datasheets of components at certain times.

 

How Practical Is This?

 

That's the biggest asset of this book in my view.

 

It requires theoretical knowledge. Doing the exercises without understanding the circuits is pointless here.

There's a lot at play in switch-mode converters that someone has to learn you.

A basic intro in the subject will not be enough. I advise the excellent Introduction to Power Electronics from the University of Colorado on Coursera.

I had a conversation on the subject with my friend ipv1 here recently. We have different views on this.

 

The Buck experiment board allows you to try out almost everything that's discussed in your theory class.

You can probe the behaviour in steady state, measure efficiency and loss (often at component level).

You can put the circuits in an unstable mode and see what happens, check ripple at different switching frequencies.

 

There are test points for all the interesting signals. There's much more that you can measure outside of the lab experiments.

 

Coverage?

 

The experiments range from the basic behaviour of the Buck circuit to some more subtle things that happen within the circuit.

Efficiency and loss, ripple, switching frequency, transient response, inductor limitations and saturation.

 

Vendor Lock-in?

 

No. There isn't an experiment, practice or explanation that's specific to TI components.

There isn't vendor bias in the whole explanation. It's obviously a marketing vehicle. Anything on the board that's could be sourced from TI is a TI component.

And the names of the two regulators are all over the place. I don't mind. It doesn't take away at all from the kit's educational value.

You can use the practices of this lab with parts of any other vendor, or with a Buck evaluation board from another vendor.

 

 

Related Blog
1a: 1st Experiment Set-up
1b: 1st Experiment Lab Setup
1c: 1st Experiment Measure
2: Educational Value

Road Test: TI-PMLK Buck Experiment Board: TPS54160 & LM3475

Next 5th September is National Teachers' Day in India and next 5th October is World Teachers' Day. Why a day for teachers?GettyImages-596813146.jpg

Teachers' Day represents a significant token of the awareness, understanding, and appreciation displayed for the vital contributions that teachers make to education and development. Teachers are key people on the early days of our lives when we're still creating our personality, helping us to boost our strengths and skills, but also realise about our weaknesses and how to train them so that we become a better person.

 

The best memories from a teacher usually do not come from the subject they teach, but the life lesson they imprinted on us. I still remember mine. We had this literature teacher in primary school everybody feared. She was really demanding, serious and very difficult to please. But I learned a lot from her. She always wanted us to look beyond the questions, not just answer the obvious to the questions, but also seek for the 'deep-down' truth that the piece was hiding behind the words (in this case was literature ). Looking beyond the obvious has been a great skill in personal and professional life - a great learning from a great teacher.

 

How important is the role of a teacher in a student’s life? What were the learning you most value from your teachers? Any teacher that really made the difference? Have you ever donned the hat of a teacher and shared knowledge with someone less privileged than you?

 

We'll love to hear your ideas and stories!

 

BBC micro:bit launches at Maker Faire Tokyo

 

What do a flying tiger, fighting robots, a bonsai tree that does yoga, a 30ft balloon sculpture and a band that plays music on reclaimed electric items have in common?

 

The answer is that they were all things that could all be seen at this week's Maker Faire event in Tokyo. element14's Jonathan Smith and KC Chung were in attendance for the Japanese launch of the BBC micro:bit, and had an opportunity to experience this unique event up close.

 

Maker Faire Tokyo 2017 was held at the Big Sight International Exhibition Centre - Japan's leading exhibition and convention space. The annual event attracts thousands of people from across Japan and beyond, including commercial companies, start ups and independent makers, all celebrating the latest developments from the global maker scene.

 

Japan has long been known for their pioneering work with robotics, and this was on full display at Maker Faire Tokyo. A dedicated robotics area saw robots performing tasks ranging from playing instruments to cutting sausages, to name but two. There was also a very popular 'fighting ring', where spectators cheered on home made robots as they went head to head under the watchful eye of the robot referee - often with hilarious consequences!

 

There was also a drone racing circuit, where attendees had the opportunity to build and race their own drones over a figure-of-8 shaped course. The ever-popular Raspberry Pi was also at the heart of many events, with Pi projects ranging from a bubble-generating helmet to an LED light curtain controlled by movement.

 

One of the stars of the show was our very own micro:bit, which was launched on the Saturday with a keynote delivered by Zach Shelby, CEO of the micro:bit foundation and Professor Hauhiro Abe, the father of the Scratch programming language in Japan. Japanese language support on the micro:bit coding platform and a number of micro:bit project demonstrations combined to impress makers, teachers and pupils alike.

 

It was also exciting to see so many children at the show - with plenty of activities to engage young creative minds. A set of long wooden tracks allowed children to race gravity-pulled cars that they had built themselves, while other exhibitions allowed young visitors to have a go at making their own 'Maker Faire' robot hat,  or to create jewellery using old PCB's. The event also hosted the competitive 'STEM athletics contest', with teams of four from different schools going head to head against the clock with their competing Maker projects.

 

Commercial companies in attendance ranged from manufacturers to resellers, all demonstrating exciting new products that visitors could try out there and then. One of the unique aspects of Maker Faire events is the makers themselves. A simple table can be transformed into a showcase for immense talent and imagination, often motivated by nothing more than a passion for making and sharing. One of the most popular stands held a group who built a range of flying animals and objects out of paper, wood, a small rechargeable battery and some clever electronics. These beautiful designs weren't for sale or made commercially - the makers were simply proud of what they had achieved.

 

One maker had invented a robotic Crepe chef, while another had created an electronic Bonsai tree that held yoga poses - why? Because he wanted to! As  MAKE Magazine founder and father of the Maker movement Dale Dougherty explained to element14's Jonathan Smith, makers often just want to solve problems and be creative. This passion for creativity over and above commercial considerations is a large part of why the Maker movement is so unique. Why not find a Maker Faire event near you and join the community?

 

{gallery} Highlights from Maker Faire Tokyo 2017

Fighting Robots at Maker Faire Tokyo 2017

Fighting Robots at Maker Faire Tokyo

Robot Crepe Machine at Tokyo Maker Faire 2017

A Robot Crepe Maker

A Yoga Bonsai

A Robot Bonsai Tree that Holds Yoga Poses? Why not!

SwitchScience Stand Tokyo Maker Faire

The Switch Science Stand was one of the most popular attractions at this year's Tokyo Maker Faire...

Balloon Maker Robot

A giant balloon Maker Robot was another star attraction at the event.

Tokyo Big Sight Exhibition Centre

The Big Sight International Exhibition Centre was the home of this year's Tokyo Maker Faire

A Remote Controlled Flying Tiger at Maker Faire Tokyo

A remote controlled 'flying tiger'

Maker Faire Founder Dale Dougherty

element14's Jonathan Smith meets Maker Faire founder Dale Dougherty

Japanese Band Tokyo Maker Faire 2017

A Japanese rock group playing on recycled instruments

Electric Motorbike Tokyo 2017

A miniature electric motorcycle

Robot Band Maker Faire Tokyo 2017

Are Robot Bands the future of music?

microbit Tokyo Maker Faire

Zach Shelby, CEO of the micro:bit Foundation, delivers a keynote speech at Maker Faire Tokyo

I am a Road Tester of the TI-PMLK Buck Experiment Board: TPS54160 & LM3475.

It's an educational kit - board and book - to learn buck converter theory and practice.

Because it's an educational kit, I give minus points each time there's vendor lock-in .

 

 

 

I applied for the Road Test to check the educational value of the kit. The focus in this blog series will be on the Lab Manual and exercises.

In this blog, I measure the efficiency for Exercise 1.

 

Doing the measurements

 

This is where the educational value of the kit is really excellent. The book doesn't discuss Buck regulator theory or measurement principles.

It assumes you have those skills. I think that's a good starting position in this case.

If you don't understand Buck converters or lack the skill of using multimeters and oscilloscopes, it doesn't really make sense to do these experiments.

They build upon your knowledge. They are not the base for  it.

 

 

Goal of Experiment 1:

The goal of this experiment is to investigate how the efficiency of a buck regulator depends on the line and load conditions and on the switching frequency.

 

 

The document reviews the parameters that play a role in efficiency, shows the components that have a loss independent of load and components that have load dependent losses.

 

 

The exercise is to measure input and output power with varying load, for an input voltage of 6 and 24 volt and calculate efficiency.

Then you have to compare that with the efficiency calculation. You get enough help in the doc to get that calculated.

Simulation affectionados (yes you Jon) may want to run it through Spice or the likes.

 

Then follow the steps to set everything up and perform the exercise (click to enlarge).

 

 

You record both calculated and measured values in a table, for those efficiency and loss tests.

 

 

Here's a few of my measurement recordings and some scope captures:

 

  • Input 6 Output current 0.8 A

 

  • Input 24V Output current 0.8 A

Here's what the manual shows for 24V 1A. It's obvious that my current measurement method (blue in the capure above vs. green in the TI manual) is not up to the game.

What I haven't done yet is to measure the behaviour when the regulator operates in non-continuous mode.

That's a todo for the next article. I'll also comment on educational value and vendor lock-in score of the kit (spoiler: high and low )

 

 

Related Blog
1a: 1st Experiment Set-up
1b: 1st Experiment Lab Setup
1c: 1st Experiment Measure
2: Educational Value

Road Test: TI-PMLK Buck Experiment Board: TPS54160 & LM3475

I am a Road Tester of the TI-PMLK Buck Experiment Board: TPS54160 & LM3475.

It's an educational kit - board and book - to learn buck converter theory and practice.

Because it's an educational kit, I give minus points each time there's vendor lock-in .

 

 

I applied for the Road Test to check the educational value of the kit. The focus in this blog series will be on the Lab Manual and exercises.

In this blog, I set up the test equipment for Experiment 1

 

Experiment 1: Impact of Load, Input Voltage and Switching Frequency on Efficiency

 

In this exercise we'll measure the efficiency a few times under changing conditions.

The tutorial advises this Lab setup:

I'm replacing the input current meter with the display of my power supply. The input voltage I've measured with the DMM.

The load is a string of 0R1 and R resistors that form 3R3 in total. That's 1A of output current for this 3V3 circuit.

 

My biggest miss is a current probe. This is used in the circuit to measure the current racing trough the inductor.

I first tried if I could put two oscilloscope probes on TP10 and TP11 of the circuit.

 

Then I tried to use the Math function of my scope to show the difference between the two.

It turns out (as expected really) that I don't get enough drop over 0R01 resistor R5 to get a signal that's above the noise floor.

 

What works better is the second thing I tried: wind a coil of isolated wire around R5 and try to steal the current that way.

This works way better. I can get a view of the current in the circuit's switching node on my oscilloscope.

Way too course to do a good measurement but it does the job of visualising what happens.

The switch node current is the blue trace on the capture below:

If you have a better idea on how I can show the switch node current, please comment below.

 

I measure output voltage with the DMM, and output current by putting my DMM over one of the load resistors in the chain + Ohm's Law.

(in the next blog you can see that I stepped away from measuring current over a series resistor and used a current meter. See comments below)

 

 

Related Blog
1a: 1st Experiment Set-up
1b: 1st Experiment Lab Setup
1c: 1st Experiment Measure
2: Educational Value

Road Test: TI-PMLK Buck Experiment Board: TPS54160 & LM3475

I am a Road Tester of the TI-PMLK Buck Experiment Board: TPS54160 & LM3475.

It's an educational kit - board and book - to learn buck converter theory and practice.

Because it's an educational kit, I give minus points each time there's vendor lock-in .

 

 

I applied for the Road Test to check the educational value of the kit. The focus in this blog series will be on the Lab Manual and exercises.

In this first blog, I'll try exercise 1.

 

Power Management Lab Kit Buck Experiment Book

 

The manual is set up as a set of lab experiments.

All exercises follow the same steps: theory, set-up and measure. Each experiment closes with a review discussion and a dig into the results.

 

The first experiments of each kit review the basic behaviour:

"What happens with the efficiency of the regulator if we change input voltage, the load at the output or the switching frequency?"

I am actually going to do the test and will do an attempt to calculate that efficiency.

 

Lab Set-up

 

Lab requirements

 

The kit expects that you have a decent lab. I don't.

For these exercises that I'm doing here, my set-up will do.

You can get almost all educational value out of this kit with a modest setup.

If you're an electronics student, you can use your college or uni lab.

Home testers will have to be inventive and will have to learn how to perform measurements in a less optimal situation.

That's a good skill to have too.

 

Here are the recommended Lab specs for the kit:

  • DC power supply 0-50V/4A with dynamic voltage mode capability
  • DC electronic load 20V/10A with dynamic current mode capability
  • 4 digital multimeters with 4 1/2-digit resolution
  • 250MHz 4-channels Digital Oscilloscope + 2 current probes 20A/50MHz

I have none of these

 

 

edit: the author of the book has addressed most of these remarks.

 

My set-up for today's case will be:

  • Rigol DP832A DC power supply 0-60V/3A or 0-30V /6A
  • Mix of cement power resistors 0R1 and 1R, 10W
  • 1 digital multimeter Brymen BM235
  • RIGOL DS1054Z 50 MHz 4-channels Digital Oscilloscope, no current probes

 

Obviously, this is a much humbler lab than the one TI prescribes. If you feel that I can't perform this exercise correctly with my current set-up, feel free to mail me the missing instruments .

 

In the next blog post, it's connect and measure time. Hang on. In the meantime read the lab manual. You can download it from the element14 community.

 

Related Blog
1a: 1st Experiment Set-up
1b: 1st Experiment Lab Setup
1c: 1st Experiment Measure
2: Educational Value

Road Test: TI-PMLK Buck Experiment Board: TPS54160 & LM3475

Keysight Infiniivision 1000 X-Series Oscilloscopes

 

STEM institutes in the UK have the chance to win a lab makeover worth up to £3,500 as part of a new competition from element14 and Keysight.

 

Schools, Universities and Education-focused charities can submit their establishment via Onecall or Farnell UK for the chance to win a brand new set of tools and components for their lab, including five InfiniVision 1000 X-Series Oscilloscopes from Keysight, worth over £600 each.

 

This competition reflects element14's long-standing commitment to supporting STEM education in the UK and around the world. It is our belief that the right equipment in the right environment is a key element in providing students with the tools and experiences they need for success in engineering.

 

Peter Birks, European Business President for Farnell element14, said:

 

“At Farnell element14 we are committed to introducing young people into the world of coding and helping them on their learning journey from education to maker to professional engineer. We do this in so many ways – right from manufacturing coding devices that spark an interest in coding from a young age, to supporting next steps as an official manufacturer of two of the most popular maker boards in the world, Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black.

“In education, we provide guidance and support through online resources available from the STEM Academy and our widely used element14 Community which has over 440,000 members. Right here in the UK, we work with Leeds Beckett University, providing access to our lab facilities for project work as well as an accredited module for their Electronics degree course. This competition recognises the strong engineering heritage we have the in UK, and the importance of investing in education to ensure that this continues.”

To enter the competition, all you have to do is complete the submission form on behalf of your institute. You must be aged 18 years or over and have a direct connection to the institute, as a teacher or department head, lab technician, teaching assistant, volunteer or parent/legal guardian of a current student.

 

The closing date for submission is Tuesday 18th April, after which time a panel of Farnell element14 and Keysight representatives will whittle down the candidates to four finalists. These finalists will then have their submissions put to a public vote via social media to determine the winner, who will be announced at 5pm on Thursday 1st May.

 

Entry to the competition is free, but establishments must be registered with EduBase2 - the UK Government body for education - in order to be eligible. Applicants are strongly encouraged to provide as much supporting material as possible to make the case for their school.

 

More information and full terms and conditions can be found here.

Student App DevelopersCommunication technology giants Verizon recently announced the winners of their annual Innovative Learning App Challenge, in which middle and high school students across America are challenged to develop mobile app concepts that solve a problem in their local communities. Promoting teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, STEM skills and coding, the app challenge attracted over 1,800 submissions, with awards available at State, Regional and National levels.

 

The eight teams who win the coveted 'Best In Nation' category are not only awarded a prize of $20,000 for their schools or nonprofit clubs, but they also have the opportunity to build their apps with the help of a visiting expert from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), before taking an all-expenses-paid trip to Orlando, Florida, where they will demo their finished apps in person at the National Technology Student Association (TSA) Conference. Past winners have demonstrated their apps at the White House, appeared in online advertising campaigns and been featured in documentaries.

 

Tackling issues ranging from self defense and crisis intervention to locally sourced food and sustainability, these are the eight app concepts that were declared Best in Nation this year.

 

Sharon Middle School, Massachusetts - Empower

Designed by a team of five seventh-grade middle school students from Sharon, Massachusetts, Empower is an app that helps autistic adults to find job placements. The group worked with local employers and volunteer group to better understand the challenges facing autistic job seekers. Empower includes features such as job listings, caregiver information and image-based options for non-verbal job seekers. Employers can also add tags to ensure job seekers are aware of demands and potential triggers such as high noise levels.

 

North Pole Middle School, Alaska - In-Reach

After deciding to focus their idea around mental health issues, the team of middle school students from North Pole Middle School, Alaska, conducted research into the topic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress that often afflicts soldiers or victims of severe injury or trauma. The In-Reach app connects to a Fitbit or smart watch, logging heartbeat acceleration to help identify PTSD episode triggers.

 

Capital Day School, Frankfort, Kentucky - Waste Free America

Inspired by an encounter with a homeless man while on a class trip to Chicago, the team of eighth-graders from Capital Day School in Frankfort, Kentucky developed 'Waste Free America', an app that alerts shelters and soup kitchens when a restaurant within a 10-mile radius has leftover food available for pickup. The group also conducted research at a women's shelter to validate their idea, winning praise from local community leaders.

 

Meeteetse Junior High, Wyoming - Farmersbook

The small town of Meeteetse, Wyoming is classified as a 'food desert', with no grocery stores within a 10 mile radius. Consequently, the town's small population often have difficulty acquiring fresh, healthy food. Students from Meeteetse Junior High came up with 'Farmersbook', a virtual farmer's market in which home gardeners can connect with consumers to sell their locally sourced fruit and vegetable crops.

 

Taos Academy Charter School, New Mexico - See Something, Say Something

After losing several classmates to teen suicide, the team from Taos Academy Charter School, New Mexico developed See Something, Say Something, an app combining community and social engagement to promote real-time crisis intervention for people who suspect a friend or family member might be in danger, or teens who are undergoing a crisis themselves. Users can share their thoughts and feelings in an online safe space, access information about suicide warning signs or connect directly to a Crisis Text Line.

 

Greenwich High School, Connecticut - Under My Wing

Developed by Greenwich High School's Girls Who Code Club, Under My Wing creates a mobile solution to help prevent and protect young adults from assault. The app features self-defense tutorials, emergency contact features and integrated recording capabilities to help people to quickly and safely raise the alarm if they feel unsafe and to remove themselves from potentially threatening situations. 

 

STEM High School, Redmond, Washington - Take Me There

Take Me There helps senior citizens and people with disabilities to plan journeys by providing detailed accessibility information and route information far beyond what typical mapping tools offer. Factors such as mode of transportation, walking distances, costs and presence of accessibility ramps allow the app to recommend the bets route to a destination based on the user's individual needs.

 

Girls Who Code Intuit, Mountain View, California - Soteria

Named after the Greek goddess of protection, Soteria uses Google Maps and local crime data to helps walkers to avoid high-risk areas when walking alone. An automatic re-router quickly calculates the best routes to circumvent crime hotspots, while a twitter feed from the local police department provides real-time alerts of recent crimes. There's also an emergency call function to help users to raise the alarm if necessary. 

 

The winning schools will all attend the National TSA Conference in June 2017, where they will demo their finished apps. The students will also retain all intellectual property rights to their apps should they wish to develop them further after the conference.

 

Which of these innovative youth projects do you find most inspiring? Do you know of any STEM groups who are doing excellent work and deserve some coverage? Let us know in the comments below...

Hidden FiguresIn a market dominated by comic book adaptations and franchise movies, the story of how three relatively little-known mathematicians contributed to the NASA space program may not sound like typical blockbuster fare. However, the 20th Century Fox release Hidden Figures has quietly become one of the biggest cinema hits of the year so far, out-grossing heavily promoted movies such as Passengers and Hacksaw Ridge, while also picking up a slew of awards and three Oscar nominations. The film tells the true story of three african american mathematicians - Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, who calculated flight trajectories for key NASA missions including Project Mercury.

 

However, the real success story of the movie may be its role in inspiring young people - particularly girls and african americans - to embrace STEM subjects. Numerous schools and STEM clubs have already started hosting special screenings of the film for their students, and are reporting highly positive feedback. Over 2,000 young women had the opportunity to see the film thanks to screenings organised by the initiative Girls Build LA, while up and down America schools and universities are organising class trips for their students, a rare opportunity to show a positive portrayal of STEM careers via a hit mainstream movie.

 

Jennifer R.Cohen, director of the free Summer Math and Science Honors Academy at UC Berkley (SMASH), another nonprofit that has been hosting screenings of the film, described it as an inspiring story of national pride for many black women.

 

"They were saying we didn't even know this was a part of history and a part of space exploration" she told the East Bay Times in an interview. "This film... really reprograms what it looks like to be STEM."

 

20-year old engineering student Maya Thompson from Stanford University also told the Times that watching the film was a cathartic experience.

 

"It was powerful and emotional... the craziest thing was how this was all new to us. It was powerful to see the shoulders we stand on."

 

According to Devin Houston, a University mentor at Jackson State University, young women aren't the only demographic responding positively to the film. He recently took more than thirty middle school boys to see the project as part of a University project funded by the Verizon Foundation. "I didn't think it would grab them" he said. "But it did. We talked about what they would take away."

 

The cast of the movie has also embraced the education community in promoting the film, attending STEM and STEAM panels across the United States. Several cast members have publically lent their support to Image of Stem, an Obama-era White House initiative that seeks to expand STEM education to students from all backgrounds.

 

Studies have shown that black women account for just 3 per cent of bachelor degrees received in computer science, with women and minorities significantly underrepresented in general across STEM careers and higher education courses.

 

Dr Glenda Glover, president of Tennessee State University described the movie as 'inspirational', and claimed to have personally paid for several young people to see the movie. "I'm celebrating the movie, but dismayed and disappointed that it took fifty years for the world to know the story", she told the educational website Diverse. "It would have been an inspiration to me."

Image: FlickrWorkplace apprenticeships have long fought against the perception that they represent a poor relation to academic qualifications when it comes to finding a route into a long-term career. However, more and more employers in the digital and technology sectors are recognising the value of apprenticeship schemes in sourcing the right candidates for hard-to-fill job roles.

 

A recent UK survey found that 75% of businesses saw the benefit of taking on paid apprentices, while 61% believed that apprenticeships offered better access to talent than traditional hiring practices. However, in spite of these findings, fewer than half of UK businesses have actually implemented formal apprenticeship programs. Similarly, many students and young people are unaware of the opportunities an apprenticeship can provide.

 

Common misconceptions around apprenticeships include the idea that they reflect academic failure and that they're only suitable for pursuing manual and trade jobs. Many job seekers also struggle to distinguish apprenticeships from internships - which are typically unpaid positions only available to candidates with the resources to work for long stretches of time with no salary and often no guarantee of a job at the end of it. By comparison, in the UK apprentices aged 16-18 are entitled to a minimum wage of £3.40 per hour, usually rising as you progress. The average hourly wage for apprentices in England in 2014 was £6.31 for level 2 and 3 apprentices, and £9.68 per hour for level 4 and 5 higher apprentices.

 

Also, while apprenticeships can open doors for candidates who don't achieve the required grades for their preferred higher education course, they are increasingly competitive in their own right. High quality exam scores in core subjects such as Maths, English and the Sciences are now common requirements for many apprenticeships, while popular schemes run by companies such as Rolls Royce and British Airways are in such high demand that they have been described by some as tougher to get into than the UK's top universities.

 

Pursuing a workplace apprenticeship doesn't necessarily mean losing out on higher education either. Many apprenticeships culminate in a qualification equivalent to an academic degree, while in fields such as engineering, apprenticeships can often build towards pursuing a part-time University degree. Promoting these so-called 'academic apprenticeships', could be an important way of dispelling the misconceptions and encouraging more high-achieving students to seriously consider apprenticeship as a viable option for further study. "Young people... think their potential is going to be limited if they do an apprenticeship rather than go to University, which in most cases is wrong" explained Teresa Frith, senior skills policy manager at the Association of Colleges (A.O.C.) in an interview with the Guardian. "If you have the ability to follow the higher education route, you can make just as good progress in your career with an apprenticeship."

 

TeenTech is an award-winning UK initiative that works with a variety of companies and organisations to encourage young people to pursue career opportunities in Science, Engineering and Technology. At their recent TeenTech City event in London, there was a strong focus on introducing students aged 15 to 18 to the different routes to tech careers and apprenticeships, with advice sessions from industry professionals and current apprentices. There was also advice on how to find a suitable apprenticeship and tips to improve your chances of being accepted onto it.

 

Ben Mustill-Rose, a developer in test for the BBC, stressed the importance of so-called 'soft skills' and extracurricular activities to build experience and make an application stand out. "From a tech point of view, it's all about contributing to things" he explained. "It shows that you genuinely care about what you're doing... it's not just about what you do in the classroom."

 

Education about the value of apprenticeships also needs to be passed on to parents, many of whom remain uncomfortable with encouraging their children to pursue this route over University study, which is still perceived as more secure and aspirational despite evidence to the contrary. Becci Newton, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, spoke to The Guardian about the benefits that parents and young people need to be more aware of. "You're not racking up debt and you're getting paid" she explained. "By the end of the apprenticeship you've got qualifications, work experiences and you're in the labour market. You're in a really strong position."

 

Did you undertake an apprenticeship as part of your career development? Can they really offer equivalent benefits to a University degree? Share your thoughts in the comments section below...

Tallinn EstoniaA quick glance at the latest global education rankings for Science and Mathematics shows a near total dominance of the top positions by Asian countries including Singapore, Japan and China, alongside a smattering of affluent Western nations such as Canada, Switzerland and Finland. However, right up alongside these major players there appears one country that consistently punches well above its weight when it comes to STEM education - the small Baltic nation of Estonia.

 

A former Soviet republic that reclaimed independence in 1991, Estonia is not only streets ahead of its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania when it comes to education, they also routinely outrank major world powers including Germany, France, the UK and the USA. In the 2016 PISA rankings published last month, Estonia ranked third worldwide for Science - the highest ranking for any Western country - and ninth for Mathematics, based on average student performance among 15 year-olds in these subjects. 72 nations in total participated in the study.

 

So what's the secret to Estonia's success? One key factor is their long form with exploiting the benefits of digital technology. Globally successful businesses such as Skype and TransferWise originated in Estonia, while the country was an early adopter of various online technologies, declaring internet access to be a human right in 2000. Free WiFi became available in most public places as early as 2002, while digital systems were rapidly adopted for numerous processes, including online voting and their celebrated concept of a paperless 'E-Government'. Today, 95% of Estonians file their taxes online, for example.

 

The country's troubled road to independence also contributed to their present success. Emerging from the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 90s, the Estonian government declined a proposed donation of a dated analogue telephone system from neighbouring Finland, opting instead to start from scratch and build a digital system of their own. With no legacy technology to speak of, the country was free to skip certain transitional stages that would slow progress in larger countries and commit wholeheartedly to developing a digital culture.

 

Skype EstoniaToday, technology industries account for around 15% of Estonia's GDP, which - in addition to a thriving start-up culture and widespread availability of digital resources - creates job opportunities and major incentives for young Estonians to pursue STEM subjects at school. Digital education starts early too, in 2012 an initiative called ProgeTiiger - which translates as "Programming Tiger" - was launched in a partnership between the Government and the Private sector, providing lessons in the basics of coding to Estonian children from the age of five years old. There is also significant investment in ensuring equality of educational opportunity for children from all economic backgrounds,

 

Like their Nordic neighbours Finland and Sweden, Estonia can leverage high taxation and a relatively small population to provide high quality education to the majority of their citizens. However, their forward-thinking approach to digital is also reflected in their politicians. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served as Estonia's president from 2006 to 2016, was raised in New Jersey USA and learned how to program as a teenager, giving him an appreciation for STEM subjects that he carried into his political career.

 

""For the people who do laws and policy, very often the last time they took math was in grade school. They don't really follow these things and it is all kind of mystical to them" he explained in a recent interview. "But there's a correlation between quality of math education and tech success." Indeed, with digital literacy and startup culture so widespread in Estonia, the relationship between young tech entrepreneurs and the government is unusually close, helping STEM initiatives like ProgeTiiger and Tech Sisters - which aims to provide more women with the support and resources they need to pursue IT and technology - to thrive.

 

"In the 80s, every boy in high school wanted to be a rock star" explained TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus in a 2013 interview with The Economist. "Now, everybody in high school wants to be an entrepreneur". Thanks to Estonia's dedication to STEM education and engagement with digital innovation, the next generation has not only the aspiration to realise this dream, but the tools as well.

Women in STEM

 

Representation and equal opportunities for women remains a major issue in STEM fields, where men continue to disproportionately dominate the workforce across numerous key industries. Worryingly, despite a number of initiatives aimed narrowing the gender gap, the proportion of the STEM workforce occupied by women has actually decreased from 22% to 21% in the United Kingdom since 2015, according to a study carried out by WISE.

 

One key finding of this and other studies has been that women and young girls often fail to see themselves reflected in the images and media surrounding STEM careers. To combat this, Getty Images recently ran an international competition in partnership with Your Life and Washington STEM to source inspirational images of STEM professionals. The winning image, entitled 'Red & Blue' was taken by photographer Stanislaw Pytel, and features a young woman working on a circuit board.

 

According to Your Life chair Edwina Dunn,  the goal of the project was to move away from the stereotypical images of middle-aged white men in white coats and present a more diverse picture of the modern STEM vocations.

 

"We are simply not doing enough to show young people the many inspiring men and women who are right now working on projects to provide the world with cleaner energy sources, to give us healthier foods, to cure cancer, to provide those without shelter with smart homes and so much more” Dunn told the Huffington Post in a recent article. "“We are delighted with this set of images which help to challenge stereotypes and represent the true picture of exciting science-fueled jobs of the future.”

 

Colleen Smith, Vice President and General Manager of OpenEdge at Progress also called for more support for women in STEM fields in a recent article for Fortune Magazine, noting that girls interested in pursuing a STEM career were four times more likely than boys to feel that their teachers haven't prepared them enough to succeed in their chosen field. Many celebrated female leaders have emerged from STEM backgrounds, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.

 

Smith argues that it's never too early to nurture an interest in technical fields, and that after-school clubs and parents need to explore less stereotypical activities for girls. "Girls who have more exposure to science and technology... are given a more well-rounded experience" she explains. "It helps to immediately dismiss the society-generated notion that some activities are better suited for one gender over the other."

 

Numerous studies appear to back up Smith's argument. For example, girls who participated in Girl Scout STEM programs reported a boost in confidence by up to 61% in maths classes and 82% in science. Smith posits that this confidence can not only encourage girls to pursue further STEM studies, it can also empower them to take on leadership roles in all fields - something Merkel, Mayer and their contemporaries would likely agree with.

 

Are you a woman pursuing a career or program of study in a STEM field? Are you a parent of girls who you'd like to encourage to take an interest in STEM subjects? Is representation the answer to closing the gap? Share your insights in the comments section below.

Year in Review Banner 2016.png

As one of the resident content specialists at element14, it’s been my job to take charge of two key areas of the community throughout 2016 – Business of Engineering and STEM Academy. Here are some of our favourite features and projects from the past 12 months...

 

Business of Engineering: Startup Case Studies

The Things Network Farnell

 

Business of Engineering is the area where we shine a light on the startups and engineering innovations that are helping to push the industry forwards.  We’re proud to be part of a company that supports a wide variety of smaller businesses and enterprises, particularly those working in IoT and electrical engineering.

 

From production and manufacturing to distribution and technical support, Farnell element14 and our subsidiary companies have been able to use our unique position within the industry to help a number of exciting innovations to move from the development phase onto the global market – and element14 has been on hand to cover them every step of the way.

 

These innovations have included The Things Network – a Dutch company using LoRaWAN technology to create a global public IoT data network, allowing devices to communicate without the need for 3G or Wi-Fi.  The Things Network announced a partnership with Farnell element14 in November 2016, for the manufacture, marketing and distribution of its gateways and nodes.

 

We also featured Pi Supply, a Raspberry Pi emporium that combines existing Raspberry Pi technology with specially developed accessories from their in-house research and development team – including the Pi Supply Switch and the Pi Juice Portable Project Platform.

 

Portability was also a key consideration for nScope, a US-based initiative developing portable lab software for teaching electronics outside the traditional lab environment. The brainchild of two teaching assistants from Northwestern University, nScope is now being expanded into a full curriculum of learning resources for students of electronics and electrical engineering.

 

Last but not least, Norwegian Startup Future Home had a big 2016 with their Smart Hub Gateway for remotely controlling, monitoring and automating a wide variety of smart devices through a single user-friendly app.  Having already experienced a successful domestic launch, after being featured in our community, Future Home went from strength to strength, and are currently finalising a number of major distribution deals and partnership opportunities that we look forward to covering in the new year.

 

STEM Academy: BBC micro:bit

BBC micro:bit

One of the most exciting projects Farnell element14 has been involved in throughout 2016 has been the launch of the BBC micro:bit. Working alongside the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and a number of major global partner corporations, we helped to distribute over 1 million BBC micro:bit devices to UK school children, free of charge.

 

Billed as the BBC’s most ambitious education initiative in thirty years, the BBC micro:bit is a pocket sized, ARM-based codeable computer featuring motion detection, a built-in compass, Bluetooth technology and a host of additional features aimed at helping UK students to get to grips with the fundamentals of coding and digital creativity.

 

A total of 29 partners were involved in bringing the BBC micro:bit project to fruition, including major brands from across the industry, including Microsoft, Nordic Semiconductor, NXP, ARM holdings and more.

 

Operating on a not-for-profit basis, Premier Farnell was closely involved with design optimisation, manufacturing and logistics for the project, in addition to helping to ensure that the device could be manufactured at a sustainable cost without sacrificing accessibility for the target market. With further global rollout for the device well underway for 2017 and beyond, it is hoped that the BBC micro:bit will ultimately evolve into a powerful global brand to complement and stand alongside current market leaders such as Raspberry Pi and Beagle Bone Black.

 

Over on the element14 STEM Academy we now have a dedicated content space for BBC micro:bit projects and initiatives. We’ve already sent out devices to several of our top members, who have been testing the BBC micro:bit’s capabilities with a number of creative projects. We look forward to even more exciting developments with this initiative in the New Year, so watch this space!

 

To stay up to date with all of our latest projects and initiatives, be sure to follow the STEM Academy and Business of Engineering content spaces for regular updates and opportunities to participate in product road tests and design challenges. 

From maths and science to art and literacy, toy manufacturers have been finding ways to combine learning with play for centuries. In the modern world, the next generation is likely to spend more and more time grappling with aspects of coding and computer programming in all aspects of their education and later working life. As a result, many leading brands are developing toys and tools that are designed to give young children a head start on the fundamentals of these vital disciplines.

 

With Christmas just around the corner, and in the spirit that it's never too early to start getting your children enthused about basic computing concepts, here are five of the must-have gifts for future coders this year.

 

Cubetto from Primo Toys

 

The Cubetto playset from Primo Toys offers an introduction to basic logic and commands for kids aged three to six. The children use a simple programming console and colour-coded direction blocks to direct a friendly wooden robot around a play mat. Coding blocks are associated with basic commands including forwards, left, right and function, introducing basic concepts such as algorithms and subroutines in an offline environment that allows the children to learn by doing. A series of different maps and educational storybooks are also available to help spark their imaginations and put their learning into context.

 

 

Code-a-pillar from Fisher Price

 

Iconic toy brand Fisher Price is helping to bring child's play into the digital age with Code-a-pillar, a colourful motorised toy built from seven connectable segments, each representing a specific function. By connecting these segments in different orders, children can enjoy an introduction to planning, sequencing and problem solving while exploring the various things the Code-a-pillar can do. Expansion packs are also available to offer a wider, more complex variety of programming options and functions.

 

 

Codebug

 

When children are ready to start interacting with real computers, the innovative wearable Codebug offers an excellent entry-level learning experience. Touch-sensitive inputs and an LED display allow the user to display graphics or create a number of simple games using a colourful online drag and drop interface. Once the child has written their program using this interface, they simply upload it to the Codebug via USB to run the program in the real world.

 

 

 

SAM Labs Inventor Kit

 

Described by Huffington Post as 'Lego for the internet generation', SAM Labs offers a variety of standalone modules and inventor kits providing all the tools a child needs to build simple connected devices including alarms, racing cars and mini drum machines that can be wirelessly activated using bluetooth to carry out a range of functions and commands. A dedicated SAM app uses simple visual programming language to help kids to develop their programs and test out a variety of different features.

 

 

BBC micro:bit

 

Aimed at children aged 11 and above, who may already have some experience on more rudimentary devices such as the Codebug, the BBC micro:bit is a pocket-sized codeable computer that can be used independently as a programmable wearable or to create simple games and tools, or connected to other devices such as Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Kano, littleBits and more as a springboard for more complex learning. Developed by the British Broadcasting Association (BBC) to inspire the next generation of tech pioneers, over one million BBC micro:bit devices were provided to year 7 students across the UK in 2016, with a wide variety of project guides and learning materials made available on their official website.

 

STEM ScoutsThe Boy Scouts have a grand tradition of helping to equip young members with practical life skills with real-world applications. In the past this has meant outdoor survival skills such as knot tying, cooking and map reading. However, the next generation of Boy Scouts may be more interested in coding than campfire songs - and several troupes have begun updating their activities accordingly to attract new members and help drag the venerable institution into the 21st century.

 

The STEM Scouts program is an offshoot of the Boy Scouts of America, using hands-on activities, field trips and mentorship opportunities to help participants to develop their skills and confidence in fundamental STEM concepts outside the classroom environment. Where parents might get involved with a traditional scout camp by volunteering as troop leaders, in STEM Scouts they can volunteer as assistant lab leaders - helping them to brush up on their own skills while sharing the experience with their children.

 

STEM Scouts also aims to continue the drive towards inclusivity and modern values that has seen the Boy Scouts transform many of their policies in recent years. Boys and girls are welcome at STEM Scout events, and units are split into distinct groups to help children from elementary to high school age to get involved at a level that will be interesting and rewarding to them. The focus is very much on participation and leadership rather than rank advancement or grades.

 

While STEM Scouts is far from the first extra-curricular STEM program, the hope is that by putting it STEM activities into the framework of scouting, they can attract a different demographic of children who may not necessarily gravitate towards existing math and coding clubs. As STEM Scouts national director April McMillan explains, "the idea is more to get kids excited in the STEM field, and less about giving them hard job-training skills." Participants are therefore encouraged to take the reins during projects rather than following a set learning schedule, with plenty of room for experimentation and trial and error.

 

The fundamental scouting principles of community service and character building are also woven heavily into STEM Scouts, with assignments including designing games and learning transferable skills that they can teach in children's hospitals and nursing facilities. They have also proven useful for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those who speak English as a second language, providing an environment where they can learn and interact with their fellow students in an environment where the focus is not on grades or following curriculum - areas where many students in these demographics statistically struggle, often dissuading them from pursuing further studies.

 

To date, STEM Scounts has formed more than 200 labs across the USA, allowing more than 2,000 children to participate in their program of activities. As with the Boy Scouts themselves, the labs are run by volunteers from the local community - usually parents or teachers. The program typically involves weekly meetings with regular field trips and four-to-six week learning modules on completion of which participants receive the ultimate Boy Scout accolade - a badge.

 

Did the Boy Scouts help to shape your interest in engineering as a child? Are you involved with any STEM Scout programs today? Let us know in the comments section below...