nScope: Teaching Electronics

By Danielle Roof

A typical Halloween at the Hoffman household According to a recent Jameco survey, only 34% of electronics hobbyists learned about electronics within a formal University setting. Instead of lecture halls, most hobbyists took a more "hands on" approach that started at the workbench. Now, at least one major University is looking for ways to shift how they teach to put a larger emphasis on experimentation.

Mechatronic lecturer Nick Marchuk and mechanical engineering graduate researcher David Meyer are passionate teachers of electronics and circuitry at Northwestern University. They recognized that it is difficult to create that same passion in a lecture hall, so they started working on a departure from the traditional class structure of three lectures a week and a separate weekly lab with a different instructor. David and Nick wanted to "flip the model of the classroom" and integrate practical, hands-on learning in every step of the process.

In Nick and David's classes, students are building multiple circuits in every class. Students don't just write lecture notes, but rather learn about a circuit and build it immediately in class then take it apart and move on to the next one. They are able to do this because Nick and David created something they call nScope. This brings an electronics lab to every laptop so that circuit design and testing are all done virtually.

A typical Halloween at the Hoffman household The platform is made up of four main functions - an oscilloscope, a function generator, a power supply, and an open API to allow anyone to integrate into this platform. The nScope looks like a small breadboard with a large circuitry "badge" across the top that then connects via USB to a notebook computer. One display shows how much power is being drawn, making it easier for students to see the type of power they are using in a circuit. The function generator creates electronic signals, the oscilloscope measures these signals, and the open API allows students to program the device however they want. The platform uses a regular breadboard to plug in resistors or other circuit components. nScope is versatile by design, so that students can make the specific kind of circuit they are learning about at any given moment.

Since the nScope platform is designed for students, it is resistant to common problems facing budding engineers. For example, it is very common for beginners to short out a lot of circuits. This is typically a very big issue and can lead to damage in the hardware. However, Nick and David and were able to create an isolated power supply that simply shuts off when there is a short. Computers are very good at sensing a short and shutting off, and the isolation of the power source makes it so that the nScope hardware is not fried either - it cuts the power entirely so that both the computer and the platform are protected from the short. The platform can then be easily rebooted for the student to try again.

Nick and David did not intend to develop a product when they set out to change the way they taught classes. They realized that when every student has a laptop, every student has a display right in front of them. With the addition of a power source and signals they could build circuits, power them, and get information about the technology on their own screen. So, they set out to find a product that would provide the power source, signals, and software to make this possible. When they found nothing of the sort on the market, they decided to make their own product instead, which lead to nScope. David and Nick developed the software, hardware, and firmware for the platform and have been redesigning and continuing to develop it for the last five years. Each version is more compact than the last, and the current model can easily fit in even the most crowded of classrooms.

David and Nick hope to expand the number of students who can use the nScope platform to learn about electronics in the near future. Their course reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and they just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to send the platform to more users. They plan to post a series of labs online similar to MIT's open courses to bring the platform to even more users. They hope to expand the use beyond the classroom in the university context and to bring nScope to schools, homes and any place where individuals wish to learn about circuitry.

For more information, see the nScope website http://www.nscope.org/

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