How to run a digital design workshop


We have developed a workshop to guide pre-college students in using the Arduino open source electronics prototyping platform to build their ideas. The objective is to train students in the use of free hardware and software allowing them to create interactive electronic objects such as microcontrollers. The workshop targets high school students in southwestern Uruguay who have limited access to technology.

While one of the goals of the workshop is to democratize access to technology, it can also help inform the future career aspirations of pre-college students. Developed as part of the Technology to Support Learning project funded by the U.S. Embassy in Uruguay and the Technological University of Uruguay (UTEC) with support from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the workshops take place in person on the UTEC campus in Fray Bentos. Since August 2021, seven face-to-face workshops have been held with a total of 216 participants from nine public and private educational institutions.

The workshop has two main objectives:

  • expand access to and familiarity with digital tools in areas of the country where this may be a challenge and use technology to support effective pedagogy and improve learning outcomes
  • help all young people, regardless of gender or social status, to start interacting with these tools, because technological literacy is a fundamental element of future success.

No previous experience in programming or electronics is necessary; The objective of the workshop is to introduce students to these tools.

Stay practical and collaborative

To train students to design and create electronic prototypes using open-source microprocessors, we focused on learning-by-doing, design collaboration, and teamwork. The workshop was limited to three hours with students divided into teams of up to four people tasked with a series of activities and challenges. The workshop was divided into four stages: connection, discovery, team challenge and contact with the field.

Link: As the course is based on group projects, it is important to help students connect. To facilitate this, we form a circle and ask each student to tell the whole group a few things about themselves, such as what they are studying, why they came to class, if they have any experience prior with technology and what his favorite food or video game is. To further facilitate social mobility within the group, we employ simple group activities often used by improvisational theater companies to open up dialogue, create connections and help students get rid of their nerves and ego. Activities we use include Red Ball, in which players pretend to throw objects around a circle, and Samurai, which involves throwing imaginary swords.

Discovery: This is when teams learn about Arduino kits and are asked to identify the components through an internet search. This generates discussions within each team. After sparking curiosity, we then provide guided instruction on the basics of using Arduino, encouraging those with prior experience to participate as leaders of one or more teams to embed learning through pairs. Tutors assume a mediating role that promotes autonomy and facilitates meaningful learning. With Activities whose complexity and difficulty increase steadily, the workshop can guide teams to make basic prototypes with resistors, LEDs and sensors in a very short time. These include becoming familiar with the Arduino board; turn on the LEDs; and discovering a circuit and programming a traffic light as a guided challenge, then changing its settings. Later we work with an RGB LED (red, green, blue) and finally introduce sensors via a sound sensor.

team challenge: As a final challenge, teams pick one item from the kit, the one that caught their attention the most, and make it work. Teams must pool their knowledge and skills to complete this task. Once their component is working, the teams present their work to the rest of the group by explaining how they solved the problems presented to them.

Touch the ground: The workshop ends with a visit to UTEC’s Mechatronics Engineering Lab for students to see what they have learned in action. The lab staff organizes a conference to demonstrate how electronic programming forms the basis of everything in the lab. They feature machines, including robotic arms, that students can interact with. This brings everything learned to life and encourages participants to maintain their interest after the workshop.

For more than 75% of the students who took the workshops, it was their first contact with an open source microcontroller. Participants who said they disliked electronics were motivated to engage in activities because of a commitment and responsibility to their team. During the workshops components of the kits were broken or lost, but that makes us happy as it is proof that many hands have tried and experienced these parts. These workshops offer students the opportunity to experience something new before deciding on their future direction.

Jorge N Gutiérrez is professor of physics and thermodynamics at the Technological University of Uruguay (UTEC).

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