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!

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