Why is hardware education just as necessary as coding?

July 20, 2021

The importance of hardware and why we should encourage our children to tinker with it is somewhere getting lost in the craze for coding. When curriculums and parents focus more on programming today, we find out why hardware education is equally necessary.

 

Andy is only ten years old but, give him a circuit board and some transistors, capacitors, and diodes, and he will delight you with do-it-yourself (DIY) projects instantly, without taking anyone’s help. He has been tinkering with hardware since he was a four-year-old. Andy’s affinity with puzzles is another story.

His social media followers under AndysTechGarage are testimony to his popularity as a passionate young maker focusing on space, robotics, 3D printing, and other science projects. He and his nine-year-old sister, Eva, are also a constant at several Maker Faire events showcasing their projects and winning accolades.

When most parents do not prioritize teaching hardware to their children as they consider coding an essential 21st-century skill, the brother-sister duo’s inspiring adventure of building things wouldn’t have been complete without their equally inspiring dad, Wally, who is the driving force behind their exemplary learning journey.

 

“In a digital versus the analog world, the simplicity and beauty of the former shine in the simplest examples. The lightswitch, an old refrigerator or iron — all work on old fashion analog solutions and do not need the added complexities and expenses of operating systems and coding,” says Wally.

“Analog solutions for kids are easier to understand when explained within proper context. Take a light sensor switch diagram from Snap Circuits versus the coding involved in programming, a similar action on an Arduino. Analog wins by a long shot and it can easily be explained to children of any age by asking them to imagine the circuit works just as their eyes do. Mission accomplished,” he adds.

 

There is no denying the need to learn programming skills in an increasingly digital world, but simultaneously learning to build hardware is equally as necessary for children.

As Forrest Mims, the most widely read electronics author and one of the “50 Best Brains in Science” by Discovery Magazine, opines:

 

 

“Learning to code without ever building any hardware is like reading a brochure about a famous museum without visiting it in person.”

 

Reiterating on how necessary it is to build hardware before going on to code, Mims states:

 

“I once saw an article about how to flash an LED by programming a microcontroller when simply building a 555 LED flasher would have been faster and simpler. The finished circuit would be small and powered by a small, 3-volt lithium coin cell. It could be clipped to a cap for night walking or bicycling or inserted into the payload section of a model rocket for tracking night flights.”

 

Echoing Mims’ views, Wally adds:

 

“Learning to code without a good understanding of hardware is akin to claiming some are computer experts just because they use AOL to access the web.”

 

Hardware is all around us

From materials like wood, metal, plastic we use in our day-to-day lives to tools like axes, hammers, and knives. It all boils down to fundamentals. The essence of early learning for children is through play, and this builds the foundation of how to use basic materials and learn the process of making things in their raw format.

 

To understand abstract concepts and to help build their spatial skills, children need to play with objects/hardware during their growing up years. For example, when you give children to play with geometric shapes, they will understand the concept of why a square is not round and vice versa. It is crucial to teach children why we use a particular tool or material or a particular gear.

Data Scientist, Teodora Beloreshka, explains it beautifully:

 

 

“Hardware and software are the two sides of the same coin. Hardware is what you have put together with your building blocks, and software is how you use what you have built.”

“For instance, we have a variety of tools for “cutting”: A knife, an axe, scalpels, scissors, etc. Most of them are made of metal, wooden and plastic pieces, and each instrument has a very narrow purpose, and is gravely unsuitable for other uses — cutting a paper with an axe is highly impractical, as is cutting a birthday cake with a long sword.”

Hardware is interaction. Teaching children the physics and math behind things they use will empower them with critical thinking and problem-solving skills. STEM education is just not about coding. It goes beyond that.

 

Building blocks can foster learning

Before children learn programming skills, they need to know basic science, individual building blocks, and building circuits. Showing them how to use different active and passive electronic components, tools, actuators, simple machines, materials, and sensors and why they need them in the first place will heighten their comprehensive understanding. Sensors are our eyes and ears to the world. The base of development and learning in children begins with such physical interaction with the world.

It is hardware/building blocks that aids learning by inspiring curiosity, creativity, and imagination during the foundational early childhood years. For instance, if you give them an electronic kit to tinker with, they will learn to explore, construct and design. They will also mess things up and learn from their mistakes.

Pointing out how basics of hardware education can build a child’s foundation, founder-president of Mand Labs, Gurpawan Mand, says:

 

 

“Real-world engineering is about solving problems. We are surrounded by them. Technology is not an end to means. Students need to develop a problem-solving approach and the right technical skills. They need exposure to the most recent technologies to be able to adapt and learn to use to apply to different contexts.”

“Mastering the theory is a necessary evil for a strong STEM background. It will give students a strong foundation to build upon.”

“Playing with new and exciting technologies without working on strong basics and theory leads nowhere. It is critical to strike a balance between exploration and instruction.”

“For instance, robotics is a multidisciplinary field that employs the use of physics and engineering design, mechanical engineering, electronics engineering, and computer science.”

“Playing with robotics toys to create a desire for learning is good. However, selling on plain assembly instructions for instant gratification would only create a weak foundation. Students need to learn the principles of physics and math to do robotics in the real world. Incorporating these principles through practice should be the main aim of educators teaching robotics.”

 

Likewise, if an electrical engineering student has not learned to play and tinker with electronic components they will not be able to build real things. For example, just following the teacher’s instructions might help them get the desired grades, but that will not help them innovate or solve problems smartly. Hands-on learning fosters independence and confidence while receiving direct instruction will kill creativity and curiosity in them.

Talking about how essential it is to have a hands-on learning experience before anything else, Mims shares an interesting quote.

 

“Several years ago, I met a friend’s daughter who had just graduated with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. When I asked if she had built any hardware during her college years, she said she had not. She had never built any circuits on her own and never used a soldering iron. She’s a bright person and will probably do well in her career. But she would have been better taught and have a much better idea of the real world by having built some basic circuits along the way.”

 

There’s more to hardware education than meets the eye

All children might not be interested in electronics, electricity, or circuits, but teaching them the fundamentals will go a long way. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of hardware education:

  • Creativity and innovation: As children learn to build things on their own, they develop creativity skills besides being intuitive and perceptive
  • Cognitive skills: Tinkering with hardware/electronics gives children the ability to think logically and independently. It also boosts their cognitive skills, thus giving them the ability to reason things and solve problems
  • Fine motor skills: Making things on their own will boost their confidence and help them to be independent
  • Critical thinking: The critical skills that children acquire while building things becomes a part of their fundamental building blocks

There’s significantly more to hardware education. If we look at the broader perspective, it can be broken down into the following:

  • Simple machines – Lever, belts and pulleys, wheels and axes, gears, inclined planes
  • Sensors – Light, temperature, sound, color, distance, motion, mechanical
  • Optics – Optical theory and instruments, optical sensors
  • Microcontrollers – 8085, AVR, Arduino, RaspberryPi
  • Power supplies – Batteries, adaptors, SMPS
  • Sensors – Locomotion – Wheeled, legged
  • Transmission – Gear, pulley, belt, chain, and sprocket, screw and nut
  • Electronics – Analog and digital
  • Actuators – Motors, engines, pneumatics, hydraulics
  • Sensors – Electronic control – Switches, relay, RC
  • Instruments – Multimeter, energy meter, CRO (Cathode Ray Oscilloscope)
  • Materials – Aluminum, wood, carbon fiber, HDPE, Styrofoam, Velcro, tape, and epoxides, adhesives
  • Basic Skills – Bearing, bushing, coupling linkages, soldering and desoldering, drilling, welding, brazing
  • Design – Circuit design, PCB design, engineering design (CAD), 3-D modeling, DFM (design for manufacturing)

We live in a world controlled by machines and technology. Think about electronics, mechanics, robotics, IoT, and hardware’s primary role shines through. Therefore, it is crucial to teach children about simple machines and their concepts and let them learn hands-on about friction, traction, force, velocity, acceleration, sound waves, angular velocity, amplitude, Newton’s laws of motion, the center of gravity, torque, the moment of inertia among others.

 

Physics is the core of it all

When teaching them light, just the theory entailing reflection, diffraction, refraction, various optical instruments, camera, optical sensors, LDR, CDS, photodiode, and phototransistor is not enough. Some activity-based experiments with objects along with concept building will help them understand the why’s and how’s.

 

Similarly, while teaching electricity and electronics, the concept of voltage, current, polarity, types of current — AC and DC, potential difference, resistance, Ohm’s law, electric field, capacitance, inductance, impedance should be taught by building circuits. They should have a working knowledge of the circuit components, including terminals, power sources, and switches.

If you want your child to start with an Arduino — considered to be a bridge between hardware and software — your child will tinker with an Arduino and will learn how to build circuits and the fundamentals of coding. Similarly, while working with transistors that work as a switch or an amplifier, they will have a working knowledge of how a switch or a relay works; and they will be able to control a light bulb or any other equipment, both mechanically and electronically.

 

Decreases screen time

Hardware kits and toys can be an engaging way to help promote a love of science in children and hone life skills. As children learn to explore and manipulate components, difficult topics and subjects seem easier to understand.

Giving them a hardware kit to play will also limit their screen time. A study published in Acta Padiatrica reveals that brain connectivity in children is decreased by the length of exposure to screen-based media.

For instance, when you give children an electronic kit, they will experiment and connect the correct wires to see the LED glow. In the process, what they learned will remain for life. It was because they delved deep and tried it out. It also pushed them to think creatively.

Japanese philosopher and writer, Miyamoto Musashi, aptly writes in, The Book of Five Rings and Dokkodo:

 

“A man cannot understand the art he is studying if he only looks for the end result without taking the time to delve deeply into the reasoning of the study.”

 

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution ushers in a life-changing shift in the way we live, it is affecting relatively each business sector, including hardware. Therefore, it is imperative to prepare our children for the future workforce.

In this era of advanced technologies, in the electronics and computer industries, hardware professionals have exciting opportunities to work on emerging techs in healthcare, manufacturing, hospitality, logistics, media production, and several others. The companies that produce and design the appliances that keep us all connected are some of the world’s most profit-making companies.

 

Innovations that make our lives easier

The advanced hardware produced in these companies ranges from mobile phones to personal computers, networking tools to printers, home appliances to peripheral devices, and semiconductors. They are popularly known as tech hardware because of their capabilities and latest in-built technology.

Lately, you must have seen reports of how the global chip shortage is affecting automotive companies like General Motors, Ford Motors, and other big names and how they are losing billions of dollars in sales. According to the consulting firm, AlixPartners, the present shortage is likely to cost the global automotive industry $110 billion in revenue in just 2021 alone.

The effects of the chips crisis have gone beyond the automotive industry. You must be wondering why you couldn’t get your hands on the latest PS-5? What will software development or game development companies do without the PS-5 console, which is hardware?

Did you know that our cars, cell phones, laptops, PlayStations, refrigerators, washing machines, and other electronic devices cannot function without semiconductor chips? Semiconductors drive the world. They power the electronic devices we use and also the factories that make these devices.

The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the crisis as the world turned into a work-from-home mode, and the demand for personal computers, game consoles, televisions, and other electronic devices spiraled, leading to a supply-chain disruption. Gartner analysts suggest the worldwide semiconductor shortage will last until mid-2022.

As the 5G network is ready to take over the world, 5G-enabled chips are the future. Imagine the innovation and the opportunities that will open up for businesses and people in the telecommunications sector and other related industries!

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, hardware professionals are likely to grow by 6 percent from 2018-2028. Hardware is not just computer hardware; its applications extend to multiple industries, including:

  • Agriculture
  • Sensors – Medical devices
  • Environment and Sustainability
  • Geology
  • Space
  • Biomechanics
  • Consumer products/goods
  • Transportation and Logistics
  • Automobile
  • Product design consultation
  • Aerospace/Aviation
  • Sensors – Manufacturing tools +machines
  • Robotics
  • Industrial Robotics + Automation
  • Defence
  • Energy
  • Architecture/ Construction
  • Logistics and Warehousing

This sector is immensely competitive as technology companies across the globe invest massively in research and development to come up with innovative services and products. Therefore, several leading firms in the hardware sector are among the influential companies in the world.

For instance, the innovation of some of the top global hardware companies, like Apple, Intel, Dell, Samsung, Sony, Philips, etc., influences several software companies. They have the power to influence decision-making.

 

Seamless integration

We can live with fewer apps on our cell phones, but we cannot imagine our lives without our phone, which is essentially hardware. Another consumer product that is revolutionizing the fitness industry and is a perfect integration of hardware and software is the smartwatch (think FitBit or the Apple watch).

 

Also, as the Internet of Things (IoT) has invaded our lives, we cannot ignore the hardware utilized in IoT systems. Our servers, routers, remote dashboards, sensors, security systems for our homes, including smart locks, smart doorbells, thermostats, cameras, like Google Nest, vacuum cleaning robots (think Dyson and Roomba!), the list of innovations in hardware is never-ending. IoT is another example of how hardware and software work together.

Industrial robotics is another vital part of this sector that is easing industrial automation. It meets high manufacturing standards that can efficiently and accurately match industry requirements, and it is completely transforming the way we live and work. Some of the top global industrial robotics companies contributing to the revolution include Boston Dynamics, Mitsubishi, Epson Robots, Rockwell Automation, ABB Robotics, Rockwell Automation, etc.

The world is also taking notice of several hardware startups making inroads in design and innovation. They have been giving us solutions to some pressing problems — From air quality testing to food safety and sleep issues to traffic woes — these companies are innovating products that are making our lives safer, healthier, and comfortable. Sambanova Systems, Ayar Labs, GreyOrange Robotics, Goose-backed Outrider, OCLU, Nima, Prynt, Xanadu are some of the names that are making a difference in the hardware space.

 

Foray into Hollywood

 

Intriguingly, hardware has made its way into Hollywood as well. Black Magic Design is one such industry leader giving creative editors and designers some of the best tools. The recent Hollywood action film Avengers: Age of Ultron used Black Magic Design’s pocket-cinema cameras. Other movies shot with this company’s products include 300, Checkmate, Logan, Jason Bourne, Tailgate, etc.

It is interesting to note that with varied industries come varied professional titles. Hardware professionals are not just hardware engineers, but their job titles can be as diverse as the following:

  • Mechanical engineer
  • Product designer
  • Hardware team lead
  • Manufacturing engineer
  • Product Manager
  • Industrial Designer
  • Quality Engineer

 

Conclusion

As long as we have gadgets and machines that get our work done, from entertaining us to cleaning floors and pools, keeping a tab on our schedules to carrying things around, we cannot undermine the role of hardware in our lives.

Therefore, there is a need to teach children the fundamentals of hardware at an early age to help them understand its workings and nuances before they get into coding. When hardware education and coding go hand-in-hand, we can accelerate our children’s learning and empower them to prepare for the future.

Kenneth Hawthorn, the author of Super Arduino and a Mechatronics instructor offering PD to teachers, rightly says:

 

 

“Teaching coding outside of electronic hardware reinforces the siloed black box mentality that part of this technological world is not appropriate for students to approach. Only with the balanced approach of teaching the computer as a whole do we approach real empowerment for students to go shape the world to match their dreams.”

 
 

Disclaimer: We reached out to Forrest Mims, Wally, Teodora Beloreshka, and Kenneth Hawthorn for their quotes on the topic. It was a voluntary effort in the advancement of STEM education. No monetary compensation is involved.

About Author
Urmila, who is a Big Data and STEM enthusiast, works as the head of communications with Mand Labs. She is a believer in transformation of life and career through STEM. She can be reached on Twitter @umarak

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