Kids these days - Embedded.com

Kids these days

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Understanding electronics is important. How can the next EE generation get that knowledge when software is all there is for inspiration?

New engineering graduates know nothing about electronics. They have no feel for what circuits should and shouldn't do. As designers they require years of apprenticeship before becoming productive. These are the complaints I hear from my middle-aged electronics friends.

Of course, we were never like that when we were kids. Nah. From the moment we entered the work force we were the gurus of digital, delighting employers and amazing our colleagues.

Hogwash.

I remember making dramatic mistakes, some from sheer ignorance and others due to the lack of common sense that becomes bitter experience. There was that time I blew up an entire instrument by not being careful with the AC mains. Another project was abandoned due to my careless assumptions about required compute horsepower.

My boss somehow tolerated these missteps and put up with the arrogance of youth, giving me a chance to mature and develop an understanding of the industry. Somehow the years color those times so we're left with a subtle feeling of superiority to today's generation of new hires.

The early days of embedded systems were very different than today, though. Many of us started engineering—or even started engineering school—with some grounding in basic electronics. We were immature and undisciplined, but perhaps had at least some feel for what electrons were likely to do.

Many of my colleagues served in Vietnam; those who enlisted before the dreaded draft notice appeared went to military electronics schools. They learned to service equipment, gained a lot of technician-level theory, and soaked up experience working on real circuits for two years. College (for those who went) bolstered my colleagues' knowledge of calculus and transistor theory, but those tempering Army years taught them the practical secrets rarely found on a university campus.

Kids back then
In the '60s and early '70s a national Apollo-era fascination with things technical helped groom youngsters for an electronics career long before entering college. It wasn't (quite) as dweebish to enter a science fair as is the case today. Kids were excited about science and engineering.

Above all, perhaps, was the specter of ham radio. Like so many others of the time, I got my first ham license at age 16. Though even back then sophisticated operating modes like single sideband (SSB) existed, most of us teenagers couldn't afford the latest cool technology. We were forced to build our own equipment.

“Forced” is hardly the right word, since building stuff was much more interesting than actually using it, when and if it finally worked.

Most novice hams had access to a supply of cheap surplus electronics gear. Vacuum tubes were the state of the surplus art, which was not a bad thing, as high-power RF transistors were simply too expensive for teenaged radio buffs.

My pals and I created a never-ending stream of “hi fi” amplifiers, transmitters, and power supplies, some of which actually worked. Sometimes not terribly well, of course. In fact, the best radio contact of my high school career was acknowledged by an angry letter from the FCC—they picked up my signal on the second harmonic, clear across the USA. I was so proud of that 3,000 mile transmission that the pink letter stayed prominently displayed on the wall for several years.

The bible, The ARRL Handbook for Radio Amateurs (revised annually by the American Radio Relay League), contained plenty of schematics and construction tips. Even kids with no formal electronics training could quickly master a transmitter design that required no more than five tubes.

Anyone with a bit of creative acquisition ability and the will to learn could create useful gear. When problems arose you'd turn to the ham radio community, which still is a huge support organization populated by folks who love electronics.

When money was available we could order electronics kits from Heathkit and quite a few other companies, most now defunct. Detailed step-by-step instructions more or less guaranteed success and increased our confidence. You could build a TV, stereo, ham radio, or practically any electronic device from these kits and wind up with something that equaled any commercial product.

Times are a changin'
Things have changed over the last couple of decades. Ham radio, while still a popular hobby, is a victim of the electronics revolution. Most (not all, but most) hams buy their equipment now, as it's just too hard to build your own. Years ago we worked almost exclusively on trivially simple AM gear. Today, SSB and FM dominate; both require much more sophisticated receivers and transmitters, equipment far beyond the construction abilities of the average teenage wannabe. Yes, there are many kits available, and many cool projects possible with the advanced technology we have. But the barriers to entry are higher; it's tough to build a device unless one has far more skills than were formerly required.

A decent radio is a significant financial commitment now; it's expensive enough to be a barrier to young folks, and the act of purchasing, rather than building, limits the educational experience.

Personally accessible computers came along in the '70s. In the succeeding 10 years the entire history of ham radio repeated itself in a time-compressed form. Amateurs grew fascinated with the technology, acquired parts by hook or crook, and built their own useful machines. An industry grew up to service these devoted homebrewers. Apple and IBM, though, finally provided machines that no one could duplicate in their basement in a reasonable amount of time. High integration and escalating complexity all but killed off computer experimenting. Today, “building a computer” means buying a motherboard, disks, and other modules, and then bolting them together. There's neither opportunity nor need to learn about the electronics.

Building a crystal radio at age 10 was fun. Not at 15. How much fun would a teenager today have working on a circuit as antique as a crystal radio? I think fun is the vital ingredient needed to entice youngsters into the field, yet fun is the thing we've made obsolete.

Youngsters enjoy learning by doing more than by studying. Besides, they already spend all day in school; few have the desire to extend that day into their hobbies. The “doing” part is awfully difficult today, unless you'd care to build equipment that is so behind the state of the art that it's a joke.

How satisfying would it be to spend weeks building a computer kit that doesn't measure up to the 3GHz Pentium he's got on his desk? Yes, it's interesting to put things together, even simple things, and see them work. It's hard to get passionate, though, about a field where you can never approach the state of the art.

And this, I think, is one place where the advance of technology is hurting us. When I was young, I could build things that were useful. That's much more difficult today.

The insatiable curiosity of youth, when directed at electronics-like subjects, now turns to software. It's the last great area where you can make something that works, at your own pace, and in your own way. Kids can wrestle with the computer just as so many of us wrestled with a soldering iron and produce something through their own creativity. This desire to learn is wonderfully encouraging.

Computer programming is a highly desirable skill. These computer wizards will become skilled and productive computer scientists but possibly not electrical engineers. Where will we get the future crop of electronics designers?

Even now it's getting harder to find good designers. Far too many embedded systems developers have little knowledge of basic electronics. Now we manipulate parts with a million transistors as easily as we once worked with a single field effect transistor. Designing a big FPGA is more a software exercise than an experience in electronics. Too few of us, who are so adept with the latest high-density devices, remember Ohm's Law.

We use mountains of decoupling capacitors, whose behavior, although critical to our circuits, doesn't at all act like logic gates. As speeds increase we're dealing with Maxwell's dreaded equations, not simple wires. Electronics, not discrete ones and zeroes.

Is basic electronics obsolete? Has Boolean algebra replaced Kirchoff's Law? Is digital engineering immune to pedantic electronics concerns? Perhaps the benign clock rates of embedded designs in the '70s and '80s insulated us from the underlying yet critical physics of circuits. I do think that the colleges pandered to this, creating a generation of “computer engineers” who are adept at software and high-level design, but adrift when confronted with a component's transfer function. I don't want to diminish the importance of these skills and people, but where will the EEs come from? Who'll be crafting analog circuits in 10 or 20 years?

Fun with novices
I play a little game with new EE graduates. Clamp a 10Ω quarter-watt resistor to a power supply that has both voltage and current meters. Ask the newbie what will happen at 5 and 10V. He'll do a little mental scribbling and give current and maybe even power predictions. Now ramp the voltage up slowly and watch his eyes as, first, smoke pours forth. Contemplate the look of panic when the resistor bursts into flames.

Only by experimenting outside of the classroom does one get a visceral feel for how components and circuits will perform.

To be fair, the academics have an impossible task. There's far too much to learn in a four- or five-year stint. How can a potential embedded systems developer learn real software engineering (not just the coding, which is all that's taught in many colleges), electromagnetics, transistor theory, Verilog, Spice, UML, and all of the other skills we eventually master?

The good news is that schools now focus more on projects. Few engineers graduate without actually building something substantial. The bad news is that these projects are nearly always computer systems; again, the electronics is neglected. And, I believe a three-credit class is just too little time to get the feel for the circuits that a great engineer exhibits. Just as no one becomes good at a programming language till cranking out 10,000 or more lines of code in that language, EEs need to spend a lot of time fixing their own mistakes before becoming proficient at the art. These crafts are experiential subjects one masters through lots of practice.

And so, I worry that our profession is drifting too far from its roots, that “embedded systems design” seems to be a subject taught and practiced independent of the electronics it relies on. Increasing speeds and the decreasing margins of low-voltage logic are already bringing basic electronics back to the forefront in importance; will future designers be knowledgeable enough to deal with this?

Save our ship
Ham radio is still alive and thriving. It's practiced by a graying population though hams work relentlessly to bring youngsters into the hobby. Today it's easier than ever to get a license; the test is easy and Morse code requirements minimal.

Get a Digikey catalog. Surf over to www.imaginetools.com. There are indeed a lot of resources for young EE-wannabees. Check out www.arrl.org, or Ward Silver's Ham Radio for Dummies , Wiley Publishing, April 2004.

I challenge you to turn a kid on to engineering.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at .

Reader Response


I totally agree when you say that too many embedded systems developers have little knowledge of basicelectronics. It's a touch like a race car driver not knowing how a combustion engine works. However, as a racer and anengineer, I have had few occasions to use that deeper understanding in either pursuit. Still, though I have no evidenceto support your inference that software geeks need to, at the very least, have smoked a cap or burned a resistor, I knowit intuitively to be so.

Today's kits, as you point out, offer little in the way of experimentation or troubleshooting opportunities. Ask the guyat the local electronics store where the TTL parts are, and he'll probably tell you they don't cary that brand (orsomething like that, ridiculously off base).

But there is hope. My son became interested in electronics after watching me working on my own projects. One night, hedropped a 9V battery in a glass jar, hooked up a small light bulb, and left two wires hanging out. He went around usingit to find objects that would conduct electricity and light the bulb when he touched the wires to it. He then beganprobing my PCB's, looking for circuits. He noticed the bulb would sometimes light brighter. I explained that what he hadwas a primitive ohmmeter. And so the adventure begins. He's six.

I feel like a artist given a lump of clay.

My point is, to all the engineers and scientists out there, if you really want to inspire youth – step away from thekeyboard yourself from time to time. You may remember what fun you had! Remember “1001 things to do with an NE555?”

– Eric Uner


I agree with your comments about it being difficult for kids to learn about electronics. There are a couple of waysthat they can do so however.

One is robotics. Robotics today is sort of where the microprocessor was when I was a teen. Everyone could build their own, at acost and it is interesting. It's also interesting to go to one of the robot contests. I attended the Trinity Fire Fightingcompetition in Hartford a couple of years back and I was pleasantly surprised at the wide range of ages of the competitors. Ialso noticed a wide range of robots, different drive systems, sensors, flame extinguishing methods etc. It genuinely appearedthat the kids (high school and university) were really enthused by buiding their robots. This experience would teach them loadsabout HW and SW.

Another possibility is the field of embedded control. A couple of years ago, my nephew was interested in microprocessors, so Isuggested that he get a Basic Stamp kit from Parallax. Then, he and I went through their learning module “What's amicrocontroller?” This was great. The lessons were geared to getting real (tangible) results from the kit as quickly aspossible. The 3rd lesson had the Stamp controlling a servo motor!! This is great stuff and shows the kids what can be done. Bythe way, my nephew is enrolled in Engineering today, albeit in Mechanical.

I think that kids today want something that is interactive and relatively fast to get results. If they are still interested,then they can delve more deeply into the subject either at school or at home.

– Philip Nowe


I agree with your premise that leaning needs to be fun. While he don't have Heathkit, we do have a slew of evaluationboards for some pretty neat devices. For not much money, we can get evaluation boards (many with breadboarding areas for anumber of embedded comuputers, FPGA's, CPLD's and many other devices such as On Semiconductors MC33794 field sensor.

For those that want to build their own boards, there are several companies that allow you to download free software to designyour circuit and layout a board and buy it from their site. The cost? less than $100 for three to five boards if they aren't toocomplex. The size of the components we use these days are just to small for wirewrapping and many times the clock speed is toohigh. Yes, I have done wire wrap at 100MHz but that was done on expensive boards and careful layout and implementation wasrequired to make it work.

There are still ways for kids to build and play with electronics but it does look different than it did in the '70s and you needto look harder. One of the differences is we can do some pretty neat things for not much dough.

One fun project migh be to play with Piezzo transponders and see how far away you can get and still get a response. Yes it ischeaper to buy an accoustic tape measure but where is the satifaction of doing it the easy way?

– Lance Doyle


Why would any bright kid want to work in a profession where he will be replaced by a foreign engineer willing to workfor about a tenth of the salary paid to U.S. engineers? A bright kid will also see that there is no payback for investing 6 to 8years in education towards a career that won't last past age 50–even if he isn't replaced by a foreign engineer.

– Fred Salvatti


Here in the UK we have a scheme, run by the Engineering Council, where neighbourhood Engineers go into their localschools to help run after school classes in design and technology. While these classes are not specifically electronics basedthey raise an awareness of engineering and above all are fun for the childern (and instructors). The children are given kits ofparts and then have to build them up before testing the final finished item. So far my class of 10 year olds have built amicrometer, a magnetic compass (which included magnetising the needle and drawing their own compass card), a morse key and buzzerand a rubber band powered helecopter.

Out of the class of 12 there is, surprisingly, only one boy. It is also noticeable that some of the less academic children arefinding that the practical nature of the class suits their abilities better than normal scool lessons.My employer, a small company of less than 40 people, has been extremely supportive in allowing me to have the time out of theoffice to take this class. It is their small way of encouraging the next generation of engineering talent without which thefuture will be bleak.

– Ian Okey


Kids also have instant gratification with video games, cell phones and the like. Building your own project sometimestook weeks to get the parts, plan the mechanical box and layout, and of course some time to build it. Kids don't have thepatience for that now.

I keep a vacuum tubes in my office, I just tell them they are large FETs..

– Terry Rogich


Why would I want to doom a childs career, when in 30 to 40 years he will finally realize that he is “old and in theway”

– richard weaver


I'm one of the few (47 now) who didn't start in radio – my hobby work was audio. Now I spend my life in video. For acouple of years my now 13 year old daughter has been interested in engineering. We pulled apart some dead equipment to see whatthings look like. I've brought oscilloscopes with function generators, mikes and speakers to her class for demos. I brought a”video visualizer” – basically an autofocus video camera on a copy stand with a monitor there and challenged them to explain how itfocused, the limits of the focus, what white balance was and generally let them play.

For Christmas, my daughter got a PIC development kit from me that she can use on a USB port of her laptop. Microcontrollers seemlike the best teaching toy – you are still programming but you can drive lights, motors and respond to inputs. There is definiteexcitement at the world interface level. She wants to etch a circuit board – also possible with a DIP PIC design.

I think you are right that as older engineers we can excite the newcomers. I've had about 10 interns from Europe over the years andI hope that they came away with the idea that engineering can still be fun 20 years later.

– Steve Nordhauser


I got started as a kid by building my own Radio Shack (Archer) Volt-ohm meter in 6th grade. (I still use it today, 30 years later). I later used that to build & test all kinds of stuff, eventually a Heath-Zenith equivalent of the early IBM PC, soldering every part– right down to the last transistor. (4.7Mhz, wow!)

A few years back I taught a neighborhood friend(8th grade) programming in “VB”. (He was wondering how one would start to programvideo games. ) He's now majoring in EE and loving it. Also has a networking job, not believing “they pay me to do this stuff!” Andhe comes by once and a while to fix my wireless network when I mess it up.

I believe mentoring is a responsibility of both the company and it's seasoned engineers. In fact, I think EVERY new hire,experienced or not should be tied to a “mentor” or “go-to person” for at least 6 months.

According to your survey, USA engineers are still among the top paid in the world, so let's continue to encourage kids this fineprofession, as long as there's good companies who recognize and reward their “seasoned engineers”.

– Dave Meekhof


As someone who sits at the other end of the spectrum… I am 25 years of age on this day, I think I see one reason why we aregetting further drifted away from basic electronics!

These days, a lot of people who are my age, rush into a master's degree or a super specialisation at the age of 25-26 with barely ayear or none of the practical work experience that is needed to appreciate the importance of understanding basic electronics! Almosteveryone seems to be an Embedded System Design Specialist, ASIC verification specialist.. or just something like that!So, here we are ,,, out of college..yet to build the ability to understand circuits..and we jump into the bandwagon of abstractengineering( RTL, System C, etc,etc!)..These qualifications are a great way to get high paying jobs, but not a great way to buildbasic level skills!

I started with building Amps for speakers in the 6th grade( which is good for someone in India where you dont really get any ofthese DIY kits!). But most of the other engineers have not even seen a opened up circuit till they are in college! And then It isfar easier to sit in front of Code and analyse , than it is to wire up meters and scopes to analyse waveforms or signals!

– Deepak Alse


I dont think this is the state of affairs at all. I just graduated 2 years ago. I spent an ungodly number of hours working withtransfer functions. I pulled ungodly amoutns of hair learning about transistors and layouts. heres my 10×16 SRAM I built for a3-credit class–from scratch:http://www.knology.net/~therin/Academic.htmland I wrote ungoldy amounts of code in OS design and artificial intelligence classes.

The real issue, is “Where do people want to go”? As an undergraduate, I chose to do mostly digital electronics and AI. Other choseanalog electronics, some chose software, and others chose RADAR design courses. As a graduate student I chose controls, whileothers chose signal processing, and yet others chose computer architecture.

Its all out there still. All of it. Universities still offer the classes, and people are still taking them. Just, nowadays, wehave much to learn in the sme period of time…

– Josh Walker


I just wanted to let you know that mentoring of young people is alive and well here in Arizona. As two examples, I offerhttp://www.post599.org, staffed mostly by engineers, and http://www.freewebs.com/falconroboticsrov of Carl Hayden Community HighSchool, staffed by professional teachers and supported by local engineers.

Although I started young with my engineering carrier (my own soldering iron at age 9, ham radio license at age 11, and a home-brewZ80 at age 17), I must say that the million-transistor chip has certainly put a twist on how I think about any new project. Tothose that say my job will be replaced by a low-paid foreigner, I say that you are not working close enough to the edge, and havebecome lax in driving technology. My limited experience with foreign engineers suggests that most of the gain made in developingcountries is due to drop-in reference designs and standards-based hardware. When it comes time for new development,sufficiently-skilled engineers, both foreign and domestic, are few and far between.

– Kevin Kilzer


Have you ever been to a FIRST Robotics competition? The enthusiasm is contagious. The kids don't get the hands on electronics you had, but it does get them excited about using technology to solve problems. You should attend a regional competition if you haven't.

– Bob Lee


I would like to chime in on the robotics side. I went to the RoboNexus trade show in San Jose 10/2004. These trade shows are likeWescon in its infancy.

I picked up some interesting info: there are over 9,000 high schools with FIRST robotics programs. This is not 9,000 kids, but 9,000high schools! The rumor is that attendance at the finals competition was 60,000 people.

In these competitions, the kids must build working robots to do some set task. The robot designs are a mix of ingenuity, elegance,brute force and awkwardness, but they have to work. Also, they are real robots at some level, not RC cars.

One of the first things that must be discovered is that most of the work is electro-mechanical design. Software helps a little, butit is comparatively lame when it comes to making something move and work.

These kids are stoked! This is real stuff. Robots have always been cool, from Tic-Tock of Oz in 1907 down to R2D2 and beyond. Kidsknow this and want to build working versions.

Even without input from the AI crowd, the robots will come, and very soon indeed. And they will be in as many shapes and functionsas those seen in Star Wars. To make them will require a wildly diverse set of electro-mechanical engineering designs, and thedesigners to create them.

In any case, 9,000 high schools represent a lot of interest in embedded design. What you learned on, you will remember and tend todo again. Your wish for kids interested in embedded systems is likely to be granted in a big way.

– David Wyland


My wife and I are both EE's. We have found a nice way to fund our electronics design hobby. We take part in contests conducted by circuitcellar or chip manufacturers, you get free development kits as well as money and article contract if you win. We have collected >17K in last 3 years. It brings back the fun of building circuits!!

Kids these days do not seem to be impressed with electronics at all. I got a scrolling LED display from Zilog for a contest, I typed “What is your name?” into the editor,compiled and downloaded the code. I tried to impress my 4.5 year old with this. He said move over, typed “I am Ridha” compiled and downloaded the code. Never looked at electronics again. He uses my scope as a control for his space ship. My point is kids are somehow attracted to PC and software, not hard work(ware).

– Sameer Cholayil

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