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EPS 022 – Using Arduino in Schools with Phil Nolt

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This week Michael sits down with Phil Nolt, a technology instructor for a large high school in Pennsylvania.  Phil talks about an Arduino class he teaches.  We hear about the ups and downs, and get Phils perspective on teaching.

Here are some of the pictures from his students’ projects.

Mini-piano

Useless Machine

Music Visualizer

Transcript:

Michael:                 Hello, this is Michael with Programming Electronics Academy. I hope you’re doing great. Thanks so much for joining me this week. We have such an interesting guest on the show today. His name is Philip Nolt and he is a teacher in a high school in southern Pennsylvania and he’s coming to talk to us about bringing Arduino to the classroom. He’s been teaching a course, they integrated Arduino. It’s really pretty interesting, we’re going to talk all about it.

Now Phil is actually a customer of ours and he was part of a early beta program we were in where we are integrating our curriculum with different school systems and it went really well and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from him and he’s actually helped us kind of develop some of the stuff to make our courses better fit there.

Now, if you’re a teacher, I think you’re really going to find this a useful talk. He just talks about how things are working in the classroom I think on a pretty practical level. Now if you’re not a teacher, this is kind of fun because you get to take a road back to memory lane. I don’t know how far back you got to go but you might be curious, what are they teaching in schools nowadays and what’s it look like. So, this will give you a picture of that.

Anyhow, I’m going to stop rambling. Let’s go ahead and jump into the show. Well Phil, thanks so much for taking time out of your day to talk, I really appreciate it.

Phil Nolt:               Thank you, looking forward to it.

Michael:                 We understand that you teach high school kids which I think is in a challenge of itself, probably an opportunity too. And you also in this role of technology instructor and you’ve kind of brought Arduino into your classroom and programming in your classroom, that kind of really interesting stuff that I think a lot of schools want to do, a lot of teachers want to do and a lot of parents want to see to happen too.

Kind of before we jump into all those interesting details, I’m kind of curious just a little bit about your background and how you found yourself in this position as a tech instructor as I’m kind of calling it.

Phil Nolt:               Yeah, sounds good. So my background, I went to study technology and engineering at Millersville University. So the official job title I guess is technology and engineering instructor. Out of college I started teaching at this school that I’m currently at. Teaching woodworking as my primary class and then over the past couple years we started adding in more of the electronics. I also teach robotics now as well. It’s now my fifth year teaching.

So I’ve learned a lot over those last couple years and I want to point out that I’m someone that didn’t really have much programming experience once I started the electronics course so it’s kind of a learn as you go but I’m willing to share kind of my journey and looking forward to share some ideas and things I’ve learned along the way.

Michael:                 Okay, awesome, that’s fantastic. All right, so you didn’t have a programming background. Was it like mechanical engineering type stuff or?

Phil Nolt:               It used to be known as like the industrial arts, which is no longer known by that, it’s more, think of the computer aided design.

Michael:                 Okay, absolutely.

Phil Nolt:               Woodworking, metalworking, graphic design, video production, the traditional technology and engineering depending on what part of the country you’re from that looks a little bit different. Around here, like my training was in those areas more like the hands-on, more career oriented fields. Over the last couple of years we started to shift more towards the STEM aspect. If you’re familiar with that, the science technology engineering and math. I’m incorporating that into our technology and engineering program at the school I’m currently at.

Michael:                 Okay, all right, that makes sense. So, when you started out five years ago you said you’re doing kind of the woodworking thing, did they have the STEM program at that point that you were just kind of falling into or was it something you were kind of building from the ground up or how did that go?

Phil Nolt:               So it’s kind of a combination. When I first started, I was a primary woodworking teacher. We had a metalworking teacher. We had a computer aided design CAD teacher. We had a graphics production teacher and a video production teacher. So there’s five existing teachers there. When I came in, there’s the goal of kind of being the new guy to bring some more relevancy and some modern age technology into the program. Not saying it wasn’t there before but just to kind of really emphasize that, like the coding, the engineering, things along that nature.

I think the other part of that question, I wasn’t brought in to teach the coding, it kind of nationally evolved. I had interest in the programming even though I didn’t have any experience. Like watching or looking on the internet, seeing like all they make in Arduino and anywhere you look you see and hear about this kind of stuff and it always kind of fascinated me. If given the opportunity, I was always hoping to kind of go down that path and develop something in the curriculum for that.

Michael:                 That’s cool. Okay, so it’s just like your own interest that kind of was in you that you kind of wanted to run this one.

Phil Nolt:               We did have an electronics course originally but nothing with like the programming and the coding part of it. Again, the introduction of technology class, you’d cover some of the electronics, the basic circuits. I think there has been in the past like electronics course I believe there before my time but like I said, a lot of the soldering and the circuits and stuff of that nature, very traditional with electronics.

Michael:                 When you started introducing this stuff, was it something the school approached you about, like, hey, you want to offer a new class type thing or was it you going to the school and saying, hey, why don’t we try this kind of thing or maybe you were both thinking about it together?

Phil Nolt:               Within our department, our technology and engineering department, we would meet when I got hired and over the course of a couple months just talking about how we can take things to the next level and I don’t know who mentioned the idea, I don’t know if I brought it up or a coworker did but somehow it came up about the Arduino and how that would be a good fit for our program.

So it was kind of a collaboration. No one really had it set in their mind, it just kind of evolved and we kind of like, hey, this could be a good idea and the kids would really enjoy it. Very beneficial for kids and so it kind of evolved from there.

Michael:                 When it started off, what did it look like, you know, just practically in the classroom?

Phil Nolt:               So, in our school we have plenty of labs so we used an existing classroom computer lab that has a few workbenches in. So that’s kind of where we run the class and I structure it as a combination of the traditional electronics where you do the wiring, the breadboarding, series circuits, parallel circuits, ohm wall, or ohms law rather. All the basics that you would probably see in a common electronics course. I did take an electronics course in college so I did have some background in that. So I kind of started with that.

I introduced kids to those basic fundamentals and then we go into the Arduino route which is important I want to mention that. A lot of people that want to get into Arduino, they try to jump right into it. I think it’s very beneficial to kind of cover the background how circuits work and how to wire things and why you wire things a certain way and I think that really gives my kids a nice foundation before we jump into the Arduino. Makes it a little bit easier to understand I think.

So yeah, we then go to the Arduino section of the course. After the Arduino lessons that we run through, we then do like a research and design project where kids just pick a topic, something they see on the Internet, an idea, something that comes to their mind from home. Anything they want to make, we kind of develop it using the Arduino. We have access to like a laser engraver 3-D printer where they can kind of make a functioning prototype of whatever they decide they want to make.

So that’s kind of the rundown of the course. So it’s basically three parts in my mind. The fundamentals, electronics, coding, programming with Arduino and then like the research and design of where you kind of apply what you’ve learned up to that point.

Michael:                 Wow, what an ambitious course. That just blows me away. Is this an entire school year for a class like this?

Phil Nolt:               So our current schedule is now trimesters. So typically I see students for 60 days. So one trimester of the year. 68 minutes per day rather. Though it flies by but we’re usually cruising pretty fast through the content.

Michael:                 That’s good. So the kids are in there every day for 60 days minus weekends and holidays.

Phil Nolt:               Yup. Roughly about 60 hours.

Michael:                 Wow, that’s still pretty aggressive though. These kids are like working at it.

Phil Nolt:               Definitely.

Michael:                 Wow, that’s really neat.

Phil Nolt:               Now I do want to mention, we don’t go really, really far in depth with the theory. It’s more like a very superficial, the basic stuff that you need to know for the Arduino. We don’t get into like capacitance and inductance and all the really high end stuff you take in like a college class. So I just want to mention that, that it’s very down, bare bones, what you need to know for that Arduino lesson.

Michael:                 Right, right, absolutely. So which part of those phases and maybe it’s different but which part do kids tend to like the most. Is there something you see the kids trending to like the most in those three phases you mentioned?

Phil Nolt:               I think the question is probably easiest to mention what they don’t like the most. It’s typically the theory part because it reminds them of a science class in a way. It’s nothing really new. Some of them probably have taken a physics class so they had the basics of electronics. Some of the time it’s a review so I see a couple kids being a little bit bored because they’ve maybe seen this stuff before. Other kids it’s brand new so they kind of struggle with that, like the math and kind of thinking through how current works and how voltage works.

So I kind of see all spectrums, typically so I’d say that the theory part is a little more drive than the rest of the course but definitely when we get to the Arduino, when things start happening, when LED’s start blinking and sensors are being used, that’s where I see kids really get excited as much as a high school student can get excited.

And definitely the RND project I definitely see the passions come out from the kids where they can apply what they like and are into into their project.

Michael:                 Wow, that is so neat. During this course, what is the biggest challenge for you as an instructor? What’s the toughest part of like. Generally speaking at least in my opinion and I’m not the quickest guy by any stretch but I mean this is kind of technical stuff. Is it difficult to communicate that? Like in my mind, that would be the hardest part. You’re the one here on the street doing it so what’s the hardest part for you?

Phil Nolt:               There’s a couple things. First of all, when you think of this generation of students you think they’re highly technical and computer savvy and all that good stuff but I find that that’s not really the case. I find that kids are much more consumers of technology rather than understanding how it works and how to think and how to problem solve.

I find those kind of skills are lacking in students and that’s why I think a class like this is really good for them where they have to learn and think how a code works and how electronics works and how do I saw a problem when my project’s not working. How can I figure out how to make it work?

So it’s kind of those soft skills that I think are really critical for this generation of students and I think is really met by this type of class. The other challenge that I see is the nature of the class, it’s very in a way unstructured in the education sense where typically in a class a lot of the time, the teacher’s leading it, they’re lecturing, going over a PowerPoint, having them do a worksheet, that kind of concept where the teacher’s at the front of the room. These kind of classes, my philosophy is to kind of let the kids run at their pace where very rarely do I give a lecture, I introduce a topic, maybe give a couple minute demo, give them the concept they need to know, set them loose, we’re either watching a video, experimenting, doing a lab.

So, for new teachers that have never really done project based learning before, that might be a challenge for some. In my experience, that’s all I really know. I’d rather the kid be working than listen to me talk for 68 minutes a day. It kind of ties into my philosophy of teaching that kids should be they’re working so that could be a challenge for some teachers starting out.

Michael:                 And I’ll make sure to link to it but I’ve seen some of the projects that have come out of your class and they just blew me away. I could not believe the craftsmanship from some of the projects but would you mind describing some of the ones that you’ve seen come through that have been interesting to you, the research projects that the kids have done?

Phil Nolt:               So, I’ll share a couple that are fresh in my mind from last trimester. One of them was a, I forget what they even called it, but it’s a music visualizer, where they have a sensor that reads the volume of the music and then based on how high the noise is it displays a certain LED. So basically, a music visualizer just kind of pulses with the beat of the music which is really cool.

Another one was a multi-sided die. So basically, he had a wooden dice where you press a button and you can select how many sides are in the dice and how many die you’re actually going to roll. So like a board game, you could have your own dice sitting there.

Another one, a student, two young ladies actually did a mini piano where they used like 16 limit switches for each of the keys. Mapped that to the Arduino to make like a mini piano kind of thing.

So those are some of the ones that came out last year. There’s been other ones but those are the freshest in my mind.

Michael:                 Those are cool. I just loved that. Did they use like a laser cutter to cut the wood for those because they just all looked so nice?

Phil Nolt:               We have an Epilog laser engraver which are used primarily in woods to make templates and etching wood products and all that good stuff but we also used it for some of these projects which makes it really nice. You could do the RND without these resources. It just makes it cleaner product I think in the end having access to this kind of stuff.

Michael:                 Right. I’m sure if you take away that wood it’s all going to look like Frankenstein. I don’t see how …

Phil Nolt:               Like online, I see a bunch of cardboard boxes and it gets the point across but something about having a nice clean finished product really lets me sleep good at night.

Michael:                 I’m kind of curious how you approach this because there are so many times when I’m working on a project or writing some code and sometimes even just a simple piece of code and I just get stuck and I keep running into this air and I’m smacking my head and like I’ll try to step away come back, I’m still running into issues writing code because sometimes it just confuses the heck out of me. And I’m sure, I can only imagine that’s also happening to your students. How do they manage with that because that could be really frustrating and how do you manage with that when a student just doesn’t seem to be or is just having an issue with code?

Phil Nolt:               Typically, the response is they raise their hand, kind of sit there and wait for me to come over to help them and then I try to break them of that habit as soon as I can. It’s in their D.N.A. to rely on the teacher to solve their problems for them. I don’t if it’s the system of our, or the education system causes that or why that happens but like I mentioned earlier, the ability for a student to troubleshoot and figure things out on their own is a struggle for many kids that I see. Whether they’re in advanced classes, whether they’re more career oriented, across the spectrum I see that in a lot of my students.

So to answer your question, I try my best not to just sit down and help them through the code. I try to get them to think through for a few minutes, back up, maybe map out on the piece of paper, do some pseudo code where they’re kind of thinking through just with English what they want the program to do and then maybe go back and try that, try to rethink it from that angle or another option is to go back, look at some previous code that they’ve written because a lot of times, they struggle with like the syntax, not having braces, not having parentheses, semicolons. That’s the biggest thing I see them struggling with.

So, usually if I have them just go back and look at some previous code, they’ll be like, oh, that’s right, I forgot to do so and so. So that usually takes care most of those troubles. But at the same time, there are still kids that no matter how many times they look at other stuff, they just can’t figure it out. So I definitely do give them hints and kind of help them through to kind of not have them sit there the entire period with that weird look on their face.

Michael:                 Well I know I want to raise my hand all the time but nobody’s going to answer me.

Phil Nolt:               Don’t you wish you had like a sidekick that follows you around and just answers all your questions?

Michael:                 Well, Google kind of does it for me anymore.

Phil Nolt:               Yes, that’s true.

Michael:                 For you, what are the rewards as a teacher kind of doing this? Obviously it sounds like you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re interested in the coding and the electronics aspect. Are there other rewards you get out of teaching a class like this?

Phil Nolt:               I think just the main thing I like to see is just the students have a passion for something to be excited about something with the project based learning where they’re actually working with their hands that hopefully they can see the value in what they’re learning that, hey, I can maybe apply this to a project that I want to do outside of class. So, I think that’s the coolest thing for me that, some kids that maybe don’t get a lot out of school that don’t see the purpose in it, like a class like this is relevant. It’s high tech, it’s modern, it’s up to date. It’s not some outdated class that has been taught the same way for 30 years. It’s a new technology that hopefully they get excited about.

Michael:                 So, do your students like the class? Do they enjoy it? Do they like coming? Is it like their favorite one, is it their like, oh man, I’ve got to go to Mr. Nolt’s class now or is it just a spread?

Phil Nolt:               Don’t really ask students that exactly. I think I mentioned earlier, a high school student if you ask them if they like something, nine times out of 10 they’re going to say no just because it’s school, they have to be there. So I won’t say like they say to my face that they like it but I think by seeing them working in class and seeing the smile on their face and the excitement that they get when they figure out how to link an LED in a certain sequence or figure out how to use a sensor, I think I see the excitement in there.

I’m sure there’s kids that took the class and probably dreaded it, never coded before and couldn’t grasp the concepts. I’m sure there are some that didn’t like it but I think overall the majority find benefits in it because they’re surrounded by electronics which is their world. There’s electronics everywhere and it’s kind of cool I think for them to see the theory and stuff behind how things actually work.

Michael:                 Yeah, absolutely, kind of pull away the veil between all the technology and realize it’s not just magic. I’m sure there’s plenty of teachers out there who are thinking about or already kind of doing stuff in their classroom or want to do stuff in their classroom with Arduino. What would be your first recommendation to a teacher out there who wants to do something like this?

Phil Nolt:               Well, I think for me when I first started thinking through what the class was going to look like, if I remember correctly, I went on the internet looked at all the different resources out there, all the different websites and I remember being really overwhelmed by how scattered things were. I saw maybe a learning Arduino book on Amazon that I think I ordered, read through. Gave me some examples. Then I saw another book, I ordered that too and then I searched like Adafruit or however you pronounce that, Adafruit I forget . There’s a lot of good resources out there but there really wasn’t like a one stop shop where I could have my kids look at it, run through them.

This isn’t a paid advertisement for your course but when I found, I forget what the original name was but I found your online course and I was like, this is awesome. I can have kids run through these videos, starts from the ground up. I don’t have to lecture them, they can watch a video, answer a few questions about it and then boom, we can do a challenge that applies those concepts they just learned.

So to recap there, I think the biggest trouble I had was just gathering the resources for the class. Like what are they going to do each day that they come in here. A lot of teachers I’m sure that teach Arduino they just pull up a file or a picture on the internet and have kids do like the sample project, which isn’t a bad thing but to get into the real benefit of Arduino, I think you need to go behind the scenes and learn how the coding works and know how the loops work and the structure and rather than just going online copying code and then just plugging in a few wires and then abracadabra there it is.

So, it’s really nice to have like a resource like you have where everything’s spelled out, videos are very clear. They watch it, do their thing, then I have some handouts that go with it where they kind of answer the questions that prove that they watched the video first of all and then have them apply that into a different challenge.

Michael:                 That’s cool, cool. I’m glad I can be helpful, that’s awesome. So, what do you think for the future of your class? Where do you think you’re going? Are you pretty happy with how you’ve got it set up right now or do you have like giant plans for like, I don’t know, phase two? What’s on the horizon for you Phil?

Phil Nolt:               I think my next goal is just to increase the enrollment. Right now, we only run one section per year, just promoting what we do in there. The name of the courses Honors Electronics or Honors Theories of Electronics which I think scares away some kids. So the next thing we might do is kind of rename the course maybe more Arduino related or something that’s less intimidating for a student to look at their scheduling sheet and sign up for it.

So I think just promoting the class, kind of using my Twitter account to show what we’re doing in the class, just to kind of keep growing that, add some more sections down the road and maybe create like a club that meets after school that just creates different crazy Arduino stuff and programs.

To answer your question, I don’t really know what the next step is going to look like. We’re also limited by how many classes I can actually teach just because I can only teach 12 sections a year, because I teach woods and I teach robotics and then electronics. So we can only teach so much. So it’s kind of captive how big we can make it but there’s definitely a lot of room to grow the course.

Michael:                 That’s coll. Well hey, Phil, thank you so much for your time. I’m sure people out there found this helpful and intriguing just like I did. So, thanks man. I appreciate you taking the time to talk and thanks for teaching our students out there.

Oh you know what, okay. Before we sign off I forgot to ask, what are the demographics, how old are these kids coming through this course?

Phil Nolt:               The primary students in this course are 10th to 12th graders. They come from a background of career oriented where they might join the workforce after school, they might do an apprenticeship at a trade. Others might be going to college. Some students come from an A.P. background where advanced placement is like college level classes in high school. So I get a mixture of students from career to college ready so it’s a definitely a wide mixture.

Primarily, I see boys, male students. The goal is to try to get more females exposed to coding electronics. In a class of 15 kids I might have maybe one or two females typically. Other than that, it’s just a wide mixture. I do want to mention that I have, there’s actually two eighth grade students that are coming up through the high school to take the class this year which is kind of cool. They were able to work out the scheduling for that to happen so third trimester this year they’re going to be coming up, two eighth grade students to join our class, which will be kind of interesting.

Michael:                 So it’s an elective then, right?

Phil Nolt:               It is an elective.

Michael:                 I would have figured but I wasn’t sure.

Phil Nolt:               It’s under the technology and engineering department course offerings.

Michael:                 And how big of a school are us at? How many students are at your school?

Phil Nolt:               The high school has about 1800 yo 2000 students.

Michael:                 Okay.

Phil Nolt:               So it’s a fairly large high school.

Michael:                 Right. Cool. All right, well I’m glad I asked. I had them in mind, I meant to ask those and I forgot.

Phil, thanks again, thank you so much for your time.

Phil Nolt:               Thank you.

Michael:                 Well, I hope you found that talk as enjoyable as I did. Phil is a really nice guy. Obviously very invested in his students and that’s always a great thing to see. Big thank you to all the teachers out there, all the hard work you do, spending time with our kids, I know I have kids in the school system so I appreciate it when I see teachers go the extra mile and just really care about the kids.

So, if you are a teacher out there, you’re interested in this program, you can reach out to us through our website, I’d be happy to talk to you about it. Otherwise, I would love for you to take the time to rate and review the show on iTunes. Maybe help spread the word. Tells somebody about the show if you think they can find it useful, we’d really appreciate it. And I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day. Take it easy, bye.