Physics and Fun for Janterm

For the 2017 Janterm session, I advertised a class on Arduino microcontrollers by asking Austin College students: “Are you a tinkerer? Do you like building things? Would you rather use your hands than sit still through a lecture?” I promised them that they would build fun projects using Arduino microcontrollers.

Twenty students answered the call and set out to learn and have fun. The students had a variety of backgrounds: computer science majors with programming experience, physics majors familiar with electrical circuits, and students with a general interest in Arduinos. They worked in teams that benefited from their various skills.

An Arduino consists of a programmable circuit board (called a microcontroller) and software that runs on an external computer and is used to control the microcontroller. The circuit board can interact with other electronic circuits and make LEDs light up, motors turn, piezo motors buzz, LCDs display text, and so on. The software is free, and the microcontrollers are inexpensive, such that many projects cost less than $100.

The January term students built eight cool projects involving Arduinos and demonstrated them to visitors outside the Austin College cafeteria in late January.  Hopefully their projects will inspire you to try your own!

Project 1: MIDI controller (Joseph Essin, Tanner Duncan, Avery Parsons and Logan Sullivan)

The MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller generates musical sounds that mimic a variety of instruments. The casing was built with an Ultimaker 2+ 3D printer. This project needed a lot of work and expertise; luckily this group of students were the right ones for this rather involved project; they got it to work and demonstrated its features by controlling the lights on their classmates’ project, “Sound Detecting LEDs.

Project 2: Sound Detecting LEDs (Aaron Thomas and Karla Villanueva)

Aaron must be the best brother ever!  For his project he wanted to build a set of LED lights that his sister can use in her room.  Aaron and Karla built a sound-reactive LED animation. They used a sound impact sensor (similar in function to a microphone) which listens to ambient sounds and detects sound pressure and changes the animation of the 5-m long LED color strip.

Project 3: Bluetooth Mechanical Keyboard (Giovani Acosta, Aaron Archer, Riley Kippers, Daniel Park)

Building a wireless keyboard seems the perfect idea for a group of gamers, so they’ve set up to do just so.  A variety of keyboards were brought in and dissected, and the perfect solution is yet to be found (it turns out that one can either buy expensive keyboards that are wireless, or make one’s own, which requires some expensive software is needed).

Project 4: RC Land Rover (Christian Thomas and Miguel Rojas)

These students wanted to learn and play, so their project involved building a remotely controlled rover. The rover can be controlled easily with a smart phone via an app and we had some fun in the lab watching it go! Each wheel is controlled separately by its own motor (which we learned the hard way that can burn out when over-used!)

Project 5: Magnetic Levitation (Richard Reyes, Pedro Marquez, and Jocelyn Baiza)

Bringing together physics and computer science majors will spark an idea for a computer-controlled levitating system! This group used an electromagnet and a magnetic field sensor to detect and control the position of a magnet in mid-air.  A sophisticated code generated a magnetic force strong enough to balance gravity!

Project 6: Infrared Touch Surface (Kyle Andrle)

This aspiring physicist decided to build an Infrared (IR) touch surface. Rows of transmitting IR LEDs generate infrared light and rows of IR receivers detect the light. An object located between the rows will block some of the light, and an algorithm can pinpoint the location of the object. Kyle worked tirelessly on this project, even when it seemed impossible to keep track of all the wires involved!

Project 7: The Magic Lock Box (Johnny Duong)

Johnny had initially a different project in mind, but after some unfortunate events that led to the early death of several piezo-motors, he settled on a lock box. The box, which contained candy on demo day, will only open when the right knock is used.  Maybe it will be used on Halloween for dispensing candy, or Johnny will use this to control the lock to his dorm room to only let in his most trusted friends.

Project 8: The Cat Laser Toy (Dakota Stephens, Jonathan Estrada, and Jessica Zapata)

These students took a laser, mounted it to a stand controlled by two motors, and uploaded code that controls both the vertical and the horizontal motion of the laser. As a result, the laser moves in a plane and its light will change direction in a seemingly random way, amusing your cat for hours on end. The students have not yet patented their invention, but maybe they can be convinced to build a few more toys on demand!

Roo Products: 3D Design and Printing in Pre-Engineering Physics

During the latter part of the fall semester, students in David Baker’s Introduction to Statics class (part of the pre-engineering curriculum) worked to design products using 3D modeling and printing. Working in teams, the students not only applied their knowledge of physics and design, but also took into account marketing, finance, and other business considerations. This is the first class at Austin College to make use of our recently acquired Ultimaker 2+ printer. Students used AutoCAD 123D and Fusion software for 3D modeling, and Cura for final print preparation. Each team developed multiple iterations of its design, testing and refining the performance of their products and documenting their thinking and practice in a collaborative Google doc.

During finals week, the four teams held a demonstration showcase outside the cafeteria for public engagement with their final products. The visitors and passers-by were duly impressed and got to try out each item. Here’s a gallery so you can see what each team produced. And maybe you’ll get some ideas for the gift-giving season 🙂 Congratulations to all the teams for your excellent work!

RooBoost (Evan Wyatt, Will Winborne, Trini Balkaran)

Have you ever wished you had a convenient, stylish, and inexpensive way to up the volume on your smartphone? The RooBoost might be your answer. Just set your phone in the dock, and the phone’s output is routed through fourteen specially designed acoustic portals to enhance your listening enjoyment without distortion.

The Sauce Boss (Sophie Anderson, Dani Dewitt, Carlye Lide)

You’re stirring a special dish on the stove, but you don’t want the spoon to fall into the pot? Enter the Sauce Boss, which fits snugly on the rim of the pot to hold your spoon in place, and doubles as a spout to smoothly pour the contents into another container.


KangaBroo (Brennan Ellis, Charles Rambo, Jake Williams)

Are you a coffee nerd? How about some cold brewed joe? Check out the KangaBroo, which will fix you up with several cups of coffee brewed with a special method that actually removes many of the bitter compounds left in by regular brewing methods.

Can-dle (Matthew Gilbert, Cal Schone, Dearl Croft)

Don’t you just hate it when you drinking a cold can of your favorite soft (or not so soft) drink, and holding it with your hand both warms the drink and gets your hand moist from condensation? Then take a look at the Can-dle, which gives you a smooth and sturdy grip without messing with your drink.

Printing Protein Models

AC biochemistry professor Jim Hebda has been conducting research into alpha-B crystallin proteins. This week he and his summer research students are using the new 3D printer to create physical models of some of these protein structures. Here’s Jim with a brief description:

Alpha-B Crystallin is a protein that helps to prevent the formation of cataracts in the lens of the eye. Formation of dimers (chemical compounds with two structurally similar units–figure A) and higher order structures, or oligomers, containing 24 subunits or more (figure B), has been linked to the stability of the lens and its ability to keep other proteins there from aggregating and forming light scattering particles that lead to cataracts. This physical unit will allow students to better visualize the protein and the locations of the mutations we are engineering.

The 3D printed structure below was printed on the Ultimaker 2+ from the Protein Data Bank (PDB) file 3L1G for the dimer and the cryoelectron microscopy image EMD 1776. for the oligomer.The printed proteins in A and B are approximately 3x1x1 and 2x2x2 inches, respectively. The PDB file was converted to a biological dimer using ( Both protein structures were converted to a 3D .stl file using Chimera (UCSF), and then prepared for printing using the Ultimaker’s print slicing software, Cura.

In each of the following figures, a computer visualization of the protein structure is on the left, and the 3D printed physical model is on the right.

A. Alpha-B Crystallin Biological Dimer




B. Alpha-B Crystallin Large Oligomer

dimer1 dimer2










On the Make: 3D Printing Comes to #ACDigPed

A Roo keychain (hopping on a robot)

We’re happy to announce that our new 3D printer has arrived at Austin College. Thanks especially to the initiative and legwork of Tom Buttine, our institutional advancement colleague and entrepreneur-in-residence, and Brittany Derebery, also from institutional advancement, the Ultimaker 2+ has been purchased and set up in the Johnson Center Digital Pedagogy studio (Abell 102). Along with the Ultimaker, we’re also acquiring the EinScan Pro 3D handheld scanner, Rhino 5 2D and 3D modeling software, and other associated accessories. Next spring we plan to add the Glowforge laser cutter to our collection of fabrication resources. Funding is being jointly supplied by the Product Lab initiative and the Mellon Digital Pedagogies grant.

During the summer and into the fall we’ll be experimenting and learning more about what we can do with these tools and, more broadly, how we want to further develop makerspace and fabrication opportunities here at the college. One of the earliest posts on this blog, “Make Moody Hall a MakerSpace?,” broached the subject and included links to resources on campus fabrication ideas and facilities. There will be workshops and tutorials as we get up to speed and discover the possibilities for utilization across our curriculum. We have some preliminary use cases that interested faculty have described, and we welcome further input from faculty, staff and students for project ideas and suggestions. If you are a faculty member considering applying for our final round of Mellon Digital Pedagogy grants, you might want to think about projects that involve 3D printing and the resources and tools listed above. We’ll also be developing an operational guide to establish policies, procedures, and user guidelines. 3D printing is more expensive and time-consuming than regular printing, so we can’t just use that model to regulate things such as payment accounts and scheduling priorities.

You can see our first couple of “builds” above…the Ultimaker robot mascot, hopped on by a kangaroo keychain. ‘Roos over robots…