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Can a $35 Computer Save Engineering Education?

A look at how inexpensive, open-source hardware, software, and computer games are fighting the engineering skills crisis.

James Cage, Avid Solutions Inc.
James Cage, Avid Solutions Inc.

Facing a growing shortage of trained engineers, schools around the world are working to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. However, some of the most promising ways to reach students come from outside the schools.

In 2009, a group of science and programming enthusiasts started the non-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation to create ultra-cheap computers for students. Their most expensive model, the $35 Raspberry Pi 2 B, features a 900 MHz quad-core processor, an HDMI output, and four USB ports. For that price, you will need to provide a micro USB power supply (an old cell phone charger will do the trick), a micro SD card, keyboard, mouse, monitor, and various cables. You can choose from a variety of free operating systems (Linux, Ubuntu, Android, etc.). In February, Microsoft announced a free version Windows 10 just for Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi was developed to teach coding (in languages like Python and C), which remains the overwhelming use for this computer. But a few enthusiasts took the next step and connected the computer to real-world devices for projects like home automation. The Pi has more than enough horsepower to run free, open-source implementations of ladder logic and other IEC 61131 languages, thus transforming the $35 PC into a $35 PLC. A small complement of digital I/O costs as little as $40 using pre-built, third-party hardware. For analog I/O, you will need to buy a/d converter chips and dig out a breadboard.

Though most Pi owners do not program with 61131 languages or learn much about process control or engineering, they are learning valuable skills that can be put to use in industry. If we want to teach skills applicable to process engineering and reach more students, we need something that is less complex, visual, and widely available than the C programming languages most Pi owners gravitate toward. This is where games come into the picture.

One of my co-workers, Andrew Jones, while recounting his experience using Mindstorms as a kid pointed out that he was essentially writing sequence charts. Mindstorms is a robotics kit made by LEGO, which is programmed using a visual language similar in many ways to some IEC 61131 languages. "If someone had told me that this is process control, it would have made it easier for me to pick a career,” Jones said.  It turns out that programming a toy robot, and writing sequence logic can be quite similar. This “toy” is very influential, but it only reaches a few students. To reach more, we turn to one of the bestselling video games of all time: Minecraft.

Minecraft players create their own landscapes, buildings and devices using an interface that is essentially a 3D CAD system. Everything is made using materials found in the game universe. Players can gather a material called redstone, which is used to create wires and even digital circuits. The results do not look like an IEC 61131 language, but they teach many similar digital logic concepts. For an example, take a look at this Minecraft video game forum.

While millions of video game players interact with the games liek Minecraft, how many of them realize they are learning skills that could lead to very rewarding process control jobs? Do their parents, teachers, and mentors know how to help them find engineering aspects of the games they play?

Another positive aspect about Raspberry Pi, Mindstorms and Minecraft is how users create very active communities online. These virtual communities ramp up enthusiasm while removing some of the uncertainty students feel about engineering as a profession. As members of the process control community, we can help students find these resources, and give them some insights into how these games relate to careers in the real world.

James Cage is an automation solution integrator at Avid Solutions Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). Contact James on twitter at @JamesDCage. For more information about Avid Solutions, visit Avid’s profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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