INTEGRATED TRAINING IN DIGITAL APPLICATIONS AND TEACHING ELECTRONICS (IT DATE): DESIGNING A MORE EFFECTIVE WAY TO TEACH COMPUTER PROGRAMMING AND EMBEDDED SYSTEMS IN PHILIPPINE SECONDARY SCHOOLS
Embedded systems is a discipline that combines the world of electronics with computer programming. It is ubiquitous in our lives today, ranging in use from airplane avionics to automated weather stations to Christmas light displays to mobile phones. In the past, embedded systems were very expensive to break into, requiring several hundreds, if not thousands of dollars worth of equipment just to get started. Recently, the cost of doing embedded systems has plummeted significantly, giving access to this creative tool to a larger base of inventive minds as seen on the Internet.
In the Philippines, digital electronics and computer programming are normally taught at the university level. In a developing country which needs a big pool of engineers and scientists, we wanted to introduce these concepts at the high-school level. This was done first as an elective in our school, the Philippine Science High School Main Campus.
We then held several training workshops for public school teachers so that they could also incorporate embedded systems to enrich their science and technology curriculum. Few science teachers had little or no experience in programming or digital electronics, although they were all users in several ways (eg in mobile phones, remote control devices etc.)
The challenge we faced was how to provide them with materials and content that would allow them to teach the basics without watering-down the content. We designed, implemented, and redesigned a series of lecture-workshops for public school teachers and students that introduced electronics, computer programming, and embedded systems.
In 2010, we decided to move away from traditional microcontrollers (e.g. 8051, Zilog Z8) to try the Arduino, which was the hobbyists' choice for cheap and easy development. The Arduino does not require expensive, specialized equipment, and the programming language is close enough to C. We then designed a one week training program called IT DATE (Integrated Training in Digital Applications and Teaching Electronics).
Programming is often taught independent of electronics. Instead of separating electronics concepts from programming concepts, we merged them together to reduce confusion. Thus, programming language acquisition was intrinsically linked to the laboratory activities that gradually grew in complexity as new skills in coding, wiring, and troubleshooting are acquired.
Examples of activities included a traffic light simulator, an electronic dice, a digital thermometer, all the way to using Bluetooth for communications.
Public school teachers with practically no prior programming and some electronics background were able to design their own gadget at the end of one week, and gained enough confidence to incorporate the topics to enrich the subjects that they teach. Recommended materials were provided to public schools through a grant from the Department of Science and technology Science Education Institute.