Alec's blog

Third Year Project Diary - A Smart Data Logger for Education

Project Outline:

An electronic device that enables a child to capture, save, send and receive data during a learning experience. For science this will mean enabling a child to be more proactive in planning and conducting investigations, while improving their understanding and ability to analyse the results.

In other areas of learning this will mean stimulating a child to be more creative in carrying out investigations, with the device making it possible to capture data in new and exciting ways. It will also allow the child to develop computing skills by introducing basic programming concepts.

  • 01 - Tweet on a Sheet

    Third Year Project. What every EEE student dreams of. A chance to get hands on developing a gadget, a toy, a solution, anything. Take an idea, a dream, and build it. This is why we do engineering.

    THE IDEA

    The mission, as conjured up by Peter R Green, a device which can be utilised within education to better support the practical integration of Internet of Things (IoT) into the curriculum.

    What? Basically, I’m looking to develop a product for primary and secondary school students. It will consist of a sensor way, streaming back live real world data, temperature, noise, light, movement etc. What happens next is up to the student. Perhaps they want to graphically display live data from a science experiment, log data for a geography project over the course of a week, or more directly develop Internet of Things and Programming knowledge.

    JARGON

    Hold on, let’s go back a step. What on earth is The Internet of Things? IoT is a proposed development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data. This is designed not only to improve the user experience by expanding features, but can also be used to make devices ‘smarter’ and ‘greener’.

    The development of IoT has the potential to impact the way we interact with each and every electronic device. It’s widely accepted that IoT will be the ‘next big thing’, comparable in impact to the creation of the internet itself.

    Does that make sense? Sort of? Well this is the first challenge. Trying to convey a product description is not easy, especially when introducing entirely new concepts such as Internet of Things.

    SEERIH

    What is fantastic is that I’m developing this product in partnership with The Science & Engineering Education Research Hub (SEERIH) at the University of Manchester. SEERIH provides professional development that fascinates teachers, young people and their communities about the wonders of science and engineering in the world around us.

    What does this mean for the project? I’ll be able to consult first hand with end users, right from the off. I’ll be meeting teachers throughout the process to best identify how the product will be used, in order to develop the ideal solution. The end goal for the project is to take a fully functional prototype into a primary school, and empowering students with a new tool to learn. This is made possible by the project’s involvement with SEERIH.

    TWEET ON A SHEET

    Today, I meet with Dr Lynne Bianchi who heads up SEERIH. Aside from a personal introduction, the meeting was designed to better determine the hub’s involvement with the project.

    “Give me a brief outline of the product,” Lynne asked.

    “OK,” I replied, “I’m designing a device which can be utilised within education to better support the practical integration of Internet of Things (IoT) into the curriculum, by means of sensor arra- “

    “Too long,” Lynne Interrupted, “It needs to be short, snappy, and in such words that anyone can understand. It should be a Tweet on a sheet.”

    Clever, a Tweet on a sheet. A tweet can be no longer than 140 characters. It should be concise, and easy to understand by all.

    This was my first challenge. Describing what the product does, selling it. It was something I’d perhaps overlooked, underestimating the importance of easily explaining it to teachers when consulting them in the weeks to come.

    None the less, here’s my full Tweet on a Sheet. Other than the 140 characters’ bit, hopefully it ticks the boxes!

    “An electronic device that enables a child to capture, save, send and receive data during a learning experience. For science this will mean enabling a child to be more proactive in planning and conducting investigations, while improving their understanding and ability to analyse the results.

    In other areas of learning this will mean stimulating a child to be more creative in carrying out investigations, with the device making it possible to capture data in new and exciting ways. It will also allow the child to develop computing skills by introducing basic programming concepts.”

    Let’s wait to see what challenge next week brings.

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  • 02 - Jobs Well Done

    Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works

     - Steve Jobs, 2003

    CREDIT WHERE CREDIT’S DUE

    First, let it be heard, I’m not a fan of Steve Jobs. My disliking comes down to the way he did business, his arrogance, and his turtle neck jumpers.

    But, what I will give him, is that he knew how to design a product. You don’t need me to tell you how he revolutionised, or even created, industries. He achieved this by taking product design to the next level.

    The quote above explains how he was so good at this. “Design is how it works.” So how do you define ‘how it works’? Functionality? Performance? No, user experience. By prioritising how a person will actually use a product, you can make the first steps in understanding how the product should be designed.

    As an engineer, I’ve already fallen into the trap of thinking about the tech first. Thinking about what sensors to use, whether it should be wired or wireless, and how I could use some pretty LEDs.

    In the last few days, I’ve started playing with a few sensors to use in the product. It’s no surprise that I’ve jumped into the hardware side of the project, but perhaps, in light of Steve Jobs’ wise words, I should be designing the product with the end user completely in mind.

    Cue quote number two:

    You have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology

    - Steve Jobs, 1997

    Thanks, Steve. With this in mind, I conducted the first stage of consultation with end users this week. Jon Chippindal is a primary school computing teacher and computing curriculum writer. He also works with SEERIH at the University of Manchester, and was more than happy to meet with me to discuss the product.

    INSIGHT

    When discussing the existing implementation of data loggers, Jon claimed that data logging is not done well in a lot of schools, “it’s slow, unintuitive, and not engaging.” He went on to explain how recent changes in the curriculum are designed to train students in “thinking like a scientist,” and believed that this product would work well with this aim.

    Jon was also able to provide great insight into what teachers want to see, and what students will love to use. He stressed areas of importance, and highlighted features that would work really well. One of the key concepts that came out of the discussion was understanding how Jon envisaged the product being used, which lead to a slightly reimagined key feature of the product.

    Jon also expressed interest in utilising the end product in some of his own computing lesson plans which are utilised by hundreds of schools. This discussion was incredibly beneficial to the project, providing reassurance and ideas, while assisting with the requirements capture at such an early stage of the product design.

    “ONE MORE THING…”

    So there we go. Design has been prioritised, the customer experience kept in mind, and the product is all the better for it. Thanks, Steve.

    I’ll leave you with one more quote. This one I think fits really nicely with the purpose of this product, after all the point of this device is to allow a student to be more creative in the learning process.

    Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them

    - Steve Jobs, 2004

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  • 03 - And Now for Something Completely Different

    The last couple of weeks on the project have been completely devoted to the first piece of assessed work, the Progress Report. Including such gems as a Literature Review, Project Plan, and Health and Safety Risk Assessment, this document is a must read. However, as much as I’d love to spend this entry talking about evaluating the severity of exploding electrolytic capacitors, I thought I’d make an effort not to put you to sleep.

    RIG OF THE MONTH

    Instead, I thought I’d talk a little about a few other things that may (or may not) bare some tenuous links to the degree, and indeed the project I’m working on.

    This week, my computer won an award.

    Yep, as strange as that may seem to some, it won “Guru3D’s Rig of the Month”. Designed to showcase PC’s that “really stand out”, the award celebrates a marriage of power-house performance and attention-to-detail modding.

    First, let’s go back a step, I’d like to justify this as a hobby. I built my first computer when I was 10, before going on to spend many hours (and money) on rebuilding, overlocking, and watercooling (we’ll come back to this). This fascination with ‘how it works’ is arguably what lead to me choosing to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

    This summer was spent working on two projects. By day, a summer internship with BAE Systems, by night, Project XOSKEL (this computer). But what makes it special? Why did it take 12 weeks to build? One of the more unique features here is that it’s watercooled. Despite water and electronics normally not mixing too well, in this case they do. By circulating cooled water around the computer, the processor and graphics card are cooled far more effectively than on air.

    The other, and perhaps more time consuming factor, is the modding involved. This is basically an OCD-centric process which involves perfecting every component, and in turn the overall look, of the build. From individually braiding every cable, to painting the motherboard and hand crafting some of the metalwork, this process is long but (I believe) worthwhile.

    And it’s this attention to detail that I’d like to be replicating in this Third Year Project (see, I told you the links were tenuous). I’m aiming to design a product which is as eye-catching as the aluminium and glass frame, as innovative as using water to cool the system, and as functional as the high performance hardware underneath.

    If you’re interested, you can find out more here: http://www.guru3d.com/articles-pages/guru3d-rig-of-the-month-october-2015.html

    SVC2MCR

    Aside from writing risk assessments and award acceptance speeches, I also found time this week to attend an event called Silicon Valley Comes to Manchester.

    The half-day afternoon conference, held at the University of Manchester and sponsored by Manchester Science Partnerships (MSP) and the Manchester Growth Company (MGC), is designed to support the ecosystem for entrepreneurs and inspire future generations to innovate and create those disruptive technologies that will shape the world.

    Headlining the event were introductory talks, and masterclasses from four Brits representing in Silicon Valley. One of which was Charlie Songhurst, a private investor whose CV includes Head of Corporate Strategy at Microsoft.

    Charlie’s passion mirrored that of Silicon Valley, levels of enthusiasm that perfectly characterise what every entrepreneur should be. “THINK BIG. Shoot for the stars.” He spoke about how graduates in Silicon Valley are dreaming how to spend their first £10 million, and that we should do too.

    Aside from the subtle hint of arrogance, I do like this mentality. Charlie’s enthusiasm and drive for success is somewhat inspirational.

    I’m sitting in a lecture theatre full of fully capable students. 95% of Electrical & Electronic Engineers at UoM go on to work and/or further study within six months of graduation (Unistats 2012). But how many students will start up their own business? How many could? Everyone here has the potential to, but far fewer will. It’s this passion and drive of Charlie’s which we could all learn a thing or two from.

    Every week I spend on this project, I convince myself a little bit more that this is a completely marketable product. There’s a gap in the market, I have a handful of potential USPs (Unique Selling Points) in the bag, and collaboration with SEERIH means there is real potential here to take this beyond just a third year project. Maybe I’ll start looking in the Aston Martin brochures then!

    Well, that’s about all for this instalment. Next time, I promise I’ll get back on topic! I’ll leave you with one more quote from Charlie, which I quite like at least, “If you’re ever the smartest person in the room: RUN!”

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  • 04 - Engineering Hero

    When I spoke to Jon a few weeks back, he told me that if I provide an exciting product, teachers will come up with a lot of very creative ideas. This week that was proved as I pitched the concept to a group of around 30-40 enthusiastic school teachers.

    #TTRP2

    This week, SEERIH launched the second occurrence of Tinker, Taylor, Robot, Pi. This project partners teachers and University engineers to respond to the question:

    How do we embrace engineering education and an ethos of tinkering using computer science, design and technology and the science curriculum?

    The project nails the idea of developing, trailing and refining learning approaches/experiences that can work to ‘plug’ the gaps in school classroom practice so that computer science is actively and genuinely used to enhance science and technology, and indeed make real ‘what it means to be an engineer’.

    As part of the two-day immersion event, I gave a presentation as an ‘Engineering Hero’. Other (perhaps more obvious) heroes included Dr Bill Crowther, Sophie Miell, and Prof Danielle George who all presented real life examples of engineers across disciplines.

    I spoke about the path taken that lead me to want to become an engineer, and how that links back to the ‘Engineering Habits of Mind’, a concept which provides a backbone to the TTRP project. I was then able to give a ‘Dragons Den’ styled pitch, perhaps minus the huge piles of cash.

    UNANIMOUSLY POSITIVE

    I asked the teachers (in true classroom fashion, by show of hands) to rate their experiences with classroom data loggers, out of 5. No one voted higher than 2, and some illustrated their past experiences of excess hassle and problems.

    I then proposed my solution. An overview of the product, and a couple of sample use cases. Once again, by show of hands, a reaction was captured: every single teacher was ‘interested in using such product in the classroom’.

    It didn’t take long before ideas were coming forward, including how the device could be used in one schools annual rocket challenge, or another school’s remote control car race in the upcoming science festival. Teachers from subjects as far afield as PE and DT also expressed great interest in how the product could be applied to their subjects.

    As a result of the event, I received some great feedback with ideas for product development and loads of fantastic use cases. Furthermore, I’ve now got a long list of schools willing to trial the device, a stage I’m hoping to reach in the next few months!

    Thanks again to Lynne and Jon for the collaboration, and I very much look forward to seeing outcomes of the Tinker Taylor Robot Pi project. More information can be found on the SEERIH website: http://www.fascinate.manchester.ac.uk/

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  • 05 - The Apprentfest

    Another week, and another opportunity. This time, I was invited to join a selection of University of Manchester academics and PHD students at the first of five Entrepreneurial Roadmap Sessions by the University of Manchester Intellectual Property (UMIP) team, hosted by Ian Brookes from DNA People.

    UMIP has the responsibility of providing Intellectual Property (IP) management and commercialisation activities throughout the University. They’ve therefore taken an active role in encouraging an entrepreneurial mind-set among students and staff, here in Manchester, with the aim of more spin-offs materialising.

    And their success can be measured too. Depending on which source you use, it’s reported that 80% of all start-ups fail. This contrasts the 69% success rate of UMIP associated spinouts. Perhaps UMIP is the rabbit’s foot we’re all looking for?

    SUR-130

    This first session focused on balancing academia and entrepreneurship. Which I felt somewhat out of place for. See, I was the only undergraduate in the room. Minus two PHD students, the audience was academics, very opinionated academics.

    This resulted in a somewhat constructive level of drama, whereby every statistic, question, or statement was scrutinised by the above-average-IQ’d audience. It was perhaps even more interesting to talk to the other attendees, with such a huge range of backgrounds and experiences.

    From a member of staff hoping to launch an arts-based innovation scheme in the third world, to a bioengineer who claimed to have a cure for cancer, every background was covered.

    JUST A THOUGHT

    Perhaps one of the factors I found most interesting was a discussion regarding how much the University is currently doing to encourage an entrepreneurial mind-set. As made clear by the presence of UMIP, Manchester has a fantastic groundwork for developing and launching spin-offs, but there’s doubt over how much first hand encouragement is provided directly to students.

    Having seen the University of Manchester ranked as high as 33rd best Worldwide (QS 2015/16), we’re all aware of the potential that lies within its 40,000 strong student population. But perhaps this isn’t being maximised upon.

    Within the School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering, we’ve participated in modules designed to directly encourage these skills. Whether it be the third year module ‘Tools & Techniques for Enterprise’, or the fantastic ‘Build a Product’ project in first year.

    Wouldn’t it be great if more schools made similar modules compulsory? Or perhaps the University could launch something like a multi-day event on campus devoted to educating encouraging such activities, in the same way it currently does for careers or social awareness.

    It shall be called ‘The Apprentfest’, and the three-day event will include presentations by well-known entrepreneurs’ / Manchester alumina, specialist workshops, and a Dragons Den styled finale with a panel of Dame Nancy Rothwell, Brian Cox, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Just a thought.

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  • 06 - Review of the Semester

    It’s Christmas, sort of, which marks the conclusion of the first half of 3rd Year Project. I feel now would be a great time to round off the semester by wrapping up all the successes of the project so far. I’d heard many a student say, “You do basically all the third year project in the second semester”, and now I understand why.

    WHAT HAS BEEN ACHIEVED?

    Well, this semester has been a success in some areas. Exciting opportunities with SEERIH has led to incredibly beneficial consultation with the likes of Dr Lynne Bianchi, Dr Jon Chippindal, and a host of primary school teachers. This has enabled the product to be designed with the target market in mind, and laid the groundwork for development.

    Perhaps the highlight so far has been presenting the idea in a Dragons Den styled pitch at the Tinker Taylor Robot Pi event. With great discussions, and excellent feedback, it’s filled me with confidence in the potential of the product, with all teachers expressing interest in getting involved.

    Plenty of other opportunities have also arisen, such as the UMIP Entrepreneur Workshops and the EEE Outreach Workshop. These have enabled me to develop a set of skills which will be applied to the project throughout the second semester.

    As a result of all this, a strong roadmap is in place to continue development of the product in the second semester. Perhaps most importantly, the design work is done. With preliminary circuits tested, and all primary components ordered, we’re in a great place to be catapulted into phase 2 of development.

    WHAT LESS SO?

    But in truth, this isn’t as far as I’d like to have progressed. With an initial aim of completing the hardware by Christmas, it’s clear to see that there’s some catching up to do.

    This downfall can be partially attributed to an unpredicted workload from other modules in the first semester. I elected to do a 6-3 module split over the two semesters, resulting in a consistently high level of deadlines throughout weeks 6-12. The price was paid in terms of time spent on the 3rd year project (and sleep), and what little time I did have was often devoted to some of the more ‘outside the box’ activities mentioned earlier.

    But the 6-3 module split leaves us in a strong position for the coming weeks. Semester 2 provides many more hours for product development, which will be needed to meet the aim of a working prototype by Easter.

    I’m eager to be able to spend serious time developing hardware and software. After all, that is why I’m here, and I’m incredibly excited to too see what challenges the continued product development will bring.

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  • 07 - Lights Out, Away We Go

    As the sun set on a predictably intense exam period, a new dawn in terms of Third Year Project presented itself. With daily lectures finished by lunch, the new term has already gifted more hours for project time than the whole of semester one combined. And I’m not the only student in this position, with what feels like a race restart taking place, and every third year is now hurtling towards the first corner.

    IF AT FIRST YOU DO SUCCEED…

    But enough of the far-fetched analogies, real progress has been made. Sitting in front of me is a breadboard with an almost complete prototype circuit running. The prototype is able to take readings from an array of sensors (as selected by user input), and then transmit these values wirelessly.

    Some minor perfections are still required on the sensing circuits, but fundamentally everything is in place. I was surprised by how easy it was to get this circuit up and running. Initial concerns over the easy of programming a microcontroller on a breadboard were thrown out of the window, with success on the first attempt (probably the first time anything I’ve built has ever worked first time).

    Ongoing development of the code has been good too, it’s in a position where by almost all end base-level features have been implemented, with just a few tweaks and additions required.

    I mentioned the readings are being transmitted wirelessly, well the next job is to actually receive these readings. By using a ‘sniffer’ tool, I’m able to detect the packets transmitted. For each reading there’s around 100 packets, each with strings of assorted numbers, understanding what they mean appears to be the next logical step.

    NEXT ON THE HORIZON

    Although there’s been great progress in the last couple of weeks, this is only just about where I wanted to be at the end of last semester, so there’s still catching up to do.

    While awaiting delivery of a few minor components (an ongoing theme of the last couple of weeks), I’ve been thinking about the route ahead. With some finishing touches on the circuit, we’ll be ready to progress to PCB design and potentially a 3D printed enclosure.

    Then while they’re in the works, it will become time to start with software development. It has to be said, this is what I’ve been losing the most sleep over. Besides some basic Java programming, I’ve virtually no experience writing programs to be run in operating systems, let alone with GUIs. I’m secretly looking forward to this though, I mean how hard can it be?

    What worries me more though, is the data acquisition process. There’s an entire stage between the core device transmitting readings, and a shiny program displaying the results, that I’m yet to get my head around. I’ve thought of a few options, but no idea how sensible they are, and sceptical about the ease of implementation.

    Anyway, that’s where I’m at for now, let’s hope this momentum will continue in the weeks ahead. The other day I naively agreed on a post-Easter holidays date to test a fully functioning prototype in a willing primary school, that doesn’t leave too long!

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  • 08 - Third Time Lucky

    This week has been a momentous step in the hardware side of the project. After weeks of prototyping the entire system on breadboard (some said this was impossible), the circuit is finally at a finalised stage.

    Weeks of slight changes, and many factors still to be decided, meant this stage has come a lot later than I’d hoped. The PCB essentially draws the line on the final circuit, with it being virtually impossible to make any changes after this point. It’s now done, but it didn’t go too smoothly.

    FIRST TIME AROUND

    The first thing I learnt about real PCB design is that I’m expected to do a lot of the work. After years of being used to library components and footprints, suddenly this wasn’t the case. Basic components such as resistors have a stock footprint, meaning a straight transfer from the circuit diagram to the PCB. The use of more ‘exotic’ components, such as specific modules, chips and diodes, aren’t however stock.

    This means designing a schematic / footprint for each of these devices (consisting of around half the unique components used). It’s fair to say this didn’t go to plan first time around.

    Issues including mounting holes being too small and incorrect pin mappings meant version 1.0 was a write off. Back to the design file, amendments were made, but version 1.1 didn’t even make it to production. The PCB office rejected the design for violating a few manufacturing requirements (issues with pad sizes and routing constraints).

    ‘FAVOURITE TOY’

    Finally, version 1.2 was completed and ready to be populated (all the components fitted). In the context of Electronic Engineering, if 3rd Year Project is the ‘dream’ every child has, then populating a PCB is every child’s ‘favourite toy’. Finding and soldering components is just about the most fun you can have as an electronic engineer.

    At the time of writing, there’s a couple of components missing, preventing testing the PCB. In due course it will be tested, and fingers crossed it’ll work!

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  • 09 - WILFRED

    Something I’ve always had in mind as an end goal for the project is to produce a full enclosure, completing a fully presentable prototype of the device. Despite being pushed on time; I was able to sacrifice a couple of nights watching TV to design the CAD enclosure.

    HOW?

    There’s a couple of options when it comes to easily manufacturing an enclosure. I’d always had 3D printing in mind for the project (more because I wanted to give it a go rather than anything!), however, laser cutting Perspex is a far simpler (and cheaper) alternative. When chatting with the mechanical workshop, they heavily favoured the laser cutting option with a cost of around £10 compared to £50 3D printing.

    So on those grounds, I went away and designed the laser cut solution. Six sides, one mid-plate, and two buttons. An evening well spent resulted in intricately designed components, with curved edges and etched faces.

    On visiting the mechanical workshop the following day, it’s fair to say they were less impressed. Some of the design features were so complex they’d take hours to cut, while others weren’t possible at all. On top of this, the laser cutting machine had literally just broken. We all agreed that 3D printing was therefore the best option. Result.

    After another night spent reconfiguring the CAD model for 3D printing, we were finally good to go. The design now consisted of a 5-sided ‘main body’, a mid-plate, back-plate, and two buttons. Despite being only 10cm squared, materials cost for 3D printing equated to £63.60, and took almost 10 hours to print.

    And the result, as you can see, is fairly impressive. Curved edges, mounting holes, and etched sensor symbols behind the faceplate. LEDs mounted behind will (should) illuminate the corresponding sensor symbol resulting in a nice clean finish.

    It’s not the most perfect quality, however. The ice white finish has turned somewhat tobacco yellow, while the 3D printing process leaves multiple rough edges / texture ‘oddities’. But none the less, it’s not designed to be perfect, it’s designed to form a proof-of-concept, which I believe it does very well!

    WHO?

    The only thing I might hear you asking is, WILFRED? The product needed a working title, something relatively catchy and memorable, while ideally personifying the device in the eyes of school children. After many hours of thought, while consulting flatmates, course-mates, people passing on the street, WILFRED was selected.

    Because at the end of the day, who could resist a Wirelessly Integrated Logging For Research & Education Device?!

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  • 10 - A Fully Functioning Prototype

    It’s finally there! This week, seven months of development finally resulted in a fully functioning completed prototype. Comprising of hardware, software, and mechanical aspects, WILFRED is now a completely usable wireless data logger.

    HARDWARE

    Unfortunately, this completion is about a month or two behind schedule. An essential component order being shipped from the US was hit by delay after delay, out of the project’s control. This meant that only now am I able to complete the initial testing and debugging that should have been conducted weeks ago. And with the project report deadline looming, there’s not that much time left.

    Short of blowing a voltage regulator along the way, the hardware was pretty much perfect. This second PCB revision appears to have done the job, although has some room for improvement. The clearly visible free space on the PCB shows that the size could be reduced, bringing down the overall cost. In a final design, it would also be sensible to use surface mount components (instead of through hole) to further reduce cost.

    SOFTWARE

    Most of the software had been previously tested, but that didn’t mean it was bug free. Only by testing it in a fully functional system did the bugs become apparent. Issues ranging from standby mode to button pressing resulted in hours of scratching heads.

    By far the biggest issue though was the wireless communication. As always, wireless isn’t straight forward, and a pain to debug. With time running out, it seemed at one point possible that the wireless may not even be functional for the final prototype. Fortunately, however, all the issues were resolved with a day or two to spare, with a big sigh of relief.

    I was even able to throw a program together which runs on a laptop, displaying the real-time measurements from the data logger on a graph. Although far from the ‘final product’, it’s acts really well as a proof-of-concept, showing off the device functionality.

    MECHANICAL

    Probably the part of the project I’m proudest of is the 3D printed enclosure. It turns an amalgamation of hardware and software into a potentially marketable product.

    It is evident, however, that there’s much room for improvement in the design. For instance, the back-lit sensor symbols aren’t that clear. What was intended to be a clearly recognisable symbol is more of an ominous glow. The solution to this I believe is illuminated Perspex insets, however that doesn’t seem straightforward in this case considering the accuracy of 3D printing.

    Overall, the months of work have paid off. I’ve spoken to course mates in the last few days who haven’t got their project as far as they’d liked, so I’m really happy with the outcome for the data logger. Even with improvements apparent, the device has all the desired functionality initially set out, and could go into a classroom tomorrow. Talking of which, it will be! I’m about to take WILFRED into a primary school for some road-testing, I’ll let you know how it goes next post!

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  • 11 - Minecraft Teleportation Slave Robots

    An aim for the project has always been to eventually test the data logger in a real classroom. So this week I headed over Seymour Park Community Primary School to meet three Year 4 classes. There were two objectives of the visit, firstly I was challenged to inspire the children about engineering, before letting the test subjects loose with WILFRED the data logger.

    I’M OUT

    I have to say I was impressed with Year 4’s impression of engineering. They were well aware that engineers aren’t all car mechanics or men in hard hats, something I didn’t achieve until about Year 12. After speaking about what inspired me to be an engineer, the children had plenty of questions.

    I asked one class what they’d build if they were engineers. This (unexpectedly) turned into a 20-minute episode of Dragon’s Den, whereby the class took it in turn to come up with more and more infeasible product ideas. Ongoing themes of Minecraft simulators, teleportation devices, or robot slaves dominated. The simplest is always the best, however, with one child proposing sunglasses in which the tinted lenses automatically fold down when it’s sunny. Not sure if I could see it catching on, but perhaps a style choice?

    ‘BAR OF SOAP’

    The real reason why I was there, however, was to evaluate the success of the data logger. I was really impressed with the students’ knowledge of 3D printing, with the process of designing and constructing the device fascinating them. After letting them inspect the data logger up close, I pulled out the laptop receiving real-time sensor data from the data logger. The graph showing measured light levels caught their attention, and encouraging them to cover up the light sensor with their hand was met with ‘gasps’ as the graph measurements reduced significantly.

    The ability to see the real-time data had the whole class completely engaged in the simple experiment. And this was reflected in the survey results which followed. Every student said they found the graphs on the computer interesting, and described it using words such as “clever”, “interesting”, and “cool”.

    There was also some critical feedback received. One student claimed it looks like a bar of soap, while another suggested it could be improved if it was voice activated.

    Overall though, 96% of the class said they’d like to use WILFRED in science lessons, a resounding result for the prototype. Furthermore, 80% said they’d ‘definitely’ find science more interesting if they were using WILFRED, which completely supports the motivation for this project. Only one student said she wouldn’t find science more interesting, who justified this at the time by saying it wasn’t possible for her to find science any more interesting than she already does!

    The read-test was a resounding success, excellent feedback was received, and so I’m told the classes were left inspired and motivated. In the words of Mrs Loughran, “It had a huge impact on the children and they were very inspired. I even had some of them asking me where the books on engineering are in the library afterwards! So, they came away with their arms full of books about inventions and technology!”

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  • 12 - Final Words

    The last eight months have brought challenge after challenge, but also reward after reward. Every technical hurdle, project deadline, or outreach challenge has resulted in developed skills, an improved product, or at least an unforgettable experience.

    REVIEW OF THE YEAR

    Initial ambitions and aspirations sustained good momentum throughout the first few weeks, that was until other course deadlines took over. As a result, technical progress was behind schedule by the end of the first semester. However, the success of consultation with end users can be celebrated. The fruitful partnership with SEERIH resulted in unparalleled opportunities to ensure that this product was developed based on the needs of the users, in my opinion one of the biggest successes of the project.

    With an emptier calendar for semester two, it was full speed ahead with regards technical development. In next to no time, an initial prototype was built and code was written. By Easter this had materialised into a presentable proof-of-concept, with a fully functioning PCB and 3D printed enclosure.

    Perhaps the most memorable part of the project was road-testing the data logger at Seymour Park Community Primary School. I wasn’t too sure what to expect, whether they’d appreciate the project, ask lots of challenging questions, or just break the prototype. (They did all by the way!). Witnessing the potential impact of the data logger in a real classroom seemed to make the project all worthwhile.

    WHAT NEXT

    The third year project is now over, as marked by the final presentation and poster submission yesterday. But is that the end of the road for WILFRED? The project has attracted attention from inside and outside the university, and a demand for this product has been demonstrated.

    With the next stages of development planned out, it’s potential that Smart Data Logging for Education could become a reality. Watch this space!

    FINAL WORDS

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed undertaking this Third Year Project, and have gained so much from doing so. I claimed in the first blog entry that the Third Year Project is “what every EEE student dreams of,” and despite being somewhat optimistic at the time, the project has proven to be the highlight of my academic university experience so far.

    But before signing off, there’s a couple of bits I want to add. There’s a number of people who have played important roles in this project, and now is a fitting time to acknowledge them.

    Firstly, I’d like to thank Lynne Bianchi, Jon Chippindall, and the team at SEERIH (The Science and Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub) for providing some fantastic opportunities for the project. An initial discussion with Jon had a prominent role in shaping the data logger, and a focus group at the Tinker Tailor Robot Pi immersion event further justified the need for such product. I look forward to working with the SEERIH team at the Robot Orchestra events in the forthcoming weeks!

    I’d also like to thank Ellie Buckley, Laura Etchells, Tony Walker and the team at UMIP (The University of Manchester’s Agent for Intellectual Property and Commercialisation) for providing education in the form of the entrepreneurial roadmap sessions. I hope to continue working with UMIP in the future.

    The production of the prototype would not have been possible without the Mechanical Workshop, and Derrick Bradshaw in the PCB office. And another thank you to Steve Hannam in Stores, his time processing and chasing up orders is particularly appreciated.

    Finally, I can’t begin to thank my project supervisor enough for his tireless commitment and support throughout the last eight months. I’ve never seen anyone more dedicated to their job than Peter R. Green, it’s been an absolute pleasure working with him, and I hope to remain in contact for years to come.

    The last eight months have brought challenge after challenge, but also reward after reward. Every technical hurdle, project deadline, or outreach challenge has resulted in developed skills, an improved product, or at least an unforgettable experience.

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