Educators from across the Commonwealth gathered at WHRO this week to learn about microcontrollers and how they could be incorporated into their classrooms. The workshop was sponsored by the Virginia Department of Education.

The three-day Microcontroller / Programming Course was led by Tom Spencer, Engineering & Technology of Robotic Design Instructor at Grassfield Governor’s STEM Academy. He introduced participants to Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform that enables users to create interactive electronic objects, and Hummingbird, which uses a tile-based programming language. Through these, educators learned to work with sensors and robotics to develop projects for various purposes.

“It is designed so teachers can take back what they need as opposed to what we wanted to give them,” Spencer explained.

Microcontrollers are used everywhere from programmable home thermostats or garage door opener to microwaves and vending machines. The workshop introduced this technology to educators to equip them to take it back to students who will learn programming languages and use them to build control systems.

Melissa Chai, a technology educator with Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, said her school hopes to persuade their district to use a grant to purchase Arduino or Hummingbird kits so they can add coding and electronics to the current curriculum for their middle schools students. Her classes currently design a paper rollercoaster that they test with a marble, but this technology would allow them to incorporate electronic components, she said.

To have examples to show her district, she used a kit from the course to create a battering ram amusement park ride. Her colleague, Lisa Horrell, created a futuristic swing with pod seats. Both educators said the best part of the course was the hands-on component that allowed them to build whatever they wanted.  

“I really appreciate the hands-on learning and time to practice so we can go back and help the students if they run into problems,” Chai said.

“The best part was that I figured it out myself instead of someone telling me how to do it,” added Horrell. “I needed to work through it so I will know how to instruct my students.”

Chai agreed, and said she now understands the frustration her students experience when they spend so much time on a project only to discover one part isn’t working correctly and they must troubleshoot.

Chris Chamberlain, iSTEM teacher with Charlottesville City Public Schools, chose to work with sensors for his project. He is interested in using sensors to monitor environmental factors like air or water quality. He would like to incorporate the technology into his 5th and 6th-grade classrooms through group projects where students design technology with real-world applications. “Kids could use these tools to solve environmental problems,” he explained.

Heather Woodruff, a high school teacher in Hampton City Public Schools, was also excited by the practical aspect of the course. She designed a sound-activated stop light for use in her classroom. When noise is at an acceptable level, her device displays the green light. As noise increases, the displayed light changes from green to yellow to red.

Another benefit of the course, she said, was meeting new people from across the Commonwealth who all had different levels of technical knowledge and seeing the projects they created.

To learn more about WHRO Education services visit their website.


Check out a few of the projects created by workshop participants:

Noise-activated stoplight
Robotic car
Battering ram amusement park ride
Swing amusement park ride Bunny that hops Robotic car