Turn a kid on to embedded systems

This country will always need engineers—great engineers. So why not get the next generation interested in embedded systems design?

In February I wrote about the difficulty kids have in learning about electronics and embedded systems and of the greater problem of getting them excited by this field. In the olden days electronics was somewhat more accessible; it was possible to build something of value using a handful of transistors or integrated circuits in packages that mortal fingers could manipulate. Today's fine-pitch SMT parts defy even the nimblest fingers. And amateur radio, long a breeding ground for people fascinated with technology and the thrill of long-distance communication, has lost ground as cell phones and instant messages connect all continents for practically no cost.

E-mails poured in. Mike Wood summarized many when he wrote:

What a great trip down memory lane! I love this field and have had tons of fun over the past quarter century. None of us entered this business with the intention of getting rich—we entered it because it was FUN. We got to play with the coolest toys and create the most exotic devices on the planet. But unfortunately those days are gone forever, as is the prospect of supporting a family as an engineer. To that end I take issue with your closing remark, “I challenge you to turn a kid on to engineering.” To do so would be child abuse. Engineering is fine as a hobby but not as a career. The message from American industry to the engineering community is quite clear, “work for a dollar a day or don't work.” Thus we see engineering jobs streaming offshore at sub-femto second clock rates and cheap foreign labor being imported at the same pace. And why is that? Simply put, the crowd on mahogany row needs to line their pockets with even more money because after all, million dollar salaries are impossible to live on.

The field has changed a lot over my 30-year career. In the '70s and '80s most of the engineers I knew did, as now, love the field. Though all wanted better pay, there was little of the bitterness that pervades the industry today.

Even after the dot-com collapse salaries for embedded systems developers are pretty good, running something like twice the U.S.'s median household income of $43,318/year according to the U.S. Census.1 As always, more money sure would be nice, but can't be the cause of so much discontent.

A gulf of Grand Canyon proportions stretches between workers and the corporation. This division has always existed, but in the easier, slower-paced days of a few decades ago the rhetoric was kinder and gentler.

Today Enron-type deals that enrich a few and toss thousands on the street embitter employees. Pension plans that employees have earned over decades to help them avoid a second career as 70-year-old WalMart stock clerks are abandoned. Jobs flow to the lowest-cost providers regardless of societal impact. But even these effects are symptoms of a bigger issue: the polarization of the country. I won't argue the right and wrong of these symptoms, because all are complex issues far more nuanced than discussed by either Fox News or Lou Dobbs. But engineers, whose intellectual abilities and specialized knowledge have long kept them safely immune from these insults, now share the trials formerly shouldered only by blue-collar workers.

Yet this country will always need engineers—great engineers. I still believe our field is the best hope for solving many of the world's current and looming mega-problems. And engineering offers an unmatched fun factor, as pointed out in Mike's e-mail. Embedded systems design is the best of all: we get to write code to control hardware we designed. Motors whirl, lights flash, sensors suck in data. Cool stuff! Our creations roam distant planets, control huge industrial processes, and save lives. They're relevant and important.

My very smart high-school senior could be a great investment banker or successful corporate buy-out artist, raking in the big bucks. But I advised him to find something he loves; a career that would entrance and fascinate him for many years to come. Money is a renewable resource, but life is not.

I'll never forget standing in line at the post office listening to the workers banter behind the counter. One 20-something individual said, quite seriously, “Only 32 years to go and then I can retire.” How sad.

Engineering, law, or library science, pick a field that gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Get a great education in a reasonably broad field. Life does take strange and surprising twists. Engineering is one of those career choices that opens many options. If you tire of slinging ones and zeroes around after a decade, get an MBA. Companies value people with an engineer's analytical approach to business.

In the U.S. we overreact to most everything. The pendulum swings wildly, like a poorly-tuned PID loop. Today we're angry and afraid of the assaults on our field. Tomorrow things will change in unexpected ways. Though engineering may never offer the lifetime employment it once did, I believe there will always be opportunities for motivated people. So if you see a kid who is fascinated by your scope or who's wondering what makes a TV work, nurture that person. When they want to learn more, mentor. Here are some resources that we can use to get young folks excited about the field.

One of the best introductions to microcontrollers and embedded systems is free from Freescale. Or Motorola. The book's title page lists both names though the URL is Freescale's. “MC68HC05 Family, Understanding Small Microcontrollers” is a well-written 300+ page tome that I highly recommend.2

If a young 'un expresses interest in radio, check out Ward Silver's Ham Radio for Dummies .3 This easy-to-read, completely nontechnical book tells anyone from age 8 to 80 how to get a ham license. Better, Ward shows why the hobby is so much fun.

On the other side of the spectrum is the “ARRL Handbook,” published every year by the American Radio Relay League.4 The book is targeted at any interested person of moderate intelligence, and it explains a great deal of electronics in a concise and clear way, using only algebra. It includes many projects, from simple power supplies to complete transceivers, with schematics, photos, parts lists, and more.

Or go to Radio Shack and get the “Engineer's Mini-Notebook for the 555 Timer.”5 In just 32 pages legendary Forrest Mims III explains this classic timer chip and gives two dozen easy-to-build projects, including a metronome, organ, and LED flasher. You can build most of these circuits in under an hour and get cool audio or visual effects.

Mims' famous “Getting Started in Electronics,” which sold some 1.3 million copies, is a 128-page complete intro to the field, which eschews math in favor of projects. It's available from W5YI.org and is ideal for newbies looking for fun things to build while learning the essence of the field.6

The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill is the standard reference on the subject.7 It's accessible with a minimum of math, but isn't for the faint of heart. Yet the book is complete. Want to know how an op-amp works? You'll get a complete and clear explanation. For advanced tech wannabees only.

David Simon's An Embedded Software Primer is the best introduction to writing firmware available.8 Any not-terribly-motivated high-school kid can master the concepts, which go from basic logic gates to working with interrupts.

Couple Embedded Systems Design Using the Rabbit 3000 Microprocessor by Kamal Hyder and Bob Perrin, with a Rabbit development kit to learn how to use this chip, but more importantly how to interface to the real world.9 Easy to read, complete, and interesting, all in one.

While many are content to lose themselves in a book, most young people prefer action. Engineering will never offer Star Wars' space battles, but plenty of inexpensive development kits offer all the capability needed to build simple systems that do real things.

Remember your first crystal radio? I was 10 and wound wire around a toilet paper tube to form the inductor. Those were indeed the olden days so the only “active” element was a galena crystal grazed by a wire whisker. The thrill of picking up an AM station in the earpiece is something I still remember. Today you can get a kit for this sort of radio for only $11 from Elenco Electronics (www.elenco.com). Fortunately galena is out and a diode is in, so the device performs a bit better and is much easier to use and construct. They also offer simple but cool $20 to $35 robot kits, and a wealth of other projects. Definitely check out this site.

Many engineers started off as hams. But sophisticated radios can cost thousands putting the hobby out of the reach of kids. But it turns out that kids like code. They practice pig Latin and other forms of popular encryption. Often they're entranced with Morse code, which is much easier to learn than one might think, especially with a young uncalcified brain. Small Wonder Labs (www.smallwonderlabs.com) sells complete Morse code transceivers in kit form for as low as $55!

Forrest Mims created a $60 course sold by Radio Shack that offers a hands-on introduction to electronic circuits (www.radioshack.com). Readers tell me the material is not as well-written as most of Mims' work, but the material is very complete and works one up to the level of a freshman EE lab class.

Parallax, home of the ever-popular Basic Stamp, offers a variety of kits aimed squarely at the education market (www.parallax.com). Their Understanding Signals kit, for instance, includes a simple oscilloscope (see my review of this in the April 2005 issue), a bag of parts, and an excellent manual guiding one through the mysteries of signals. You will need a Basic Stamp computer module to run all of the experiments. The entire manual is free at www.parallax.com/dl/docs/prod/sic/Signals.pdf.

The company's $169 Basic Stamp Discovery kit includes everything needed to learn about building simple embedded systems, with parts and instructions for some 40 projects. Yes, the language is Basic. But that's a lot more accessible to teens than assembly or C, especially since Basic is interpreted. There's no compile/link/download cycle to interfere with the fun of building and testing. Think Doom rather than chess.

Do check out their PING))) ultrasonic sensor—a $25 sonar module that ranges at distances up to 11 feet and requires only a single I/O pin. And there's the $30 Compass Module, a dual-axis unit that can be the start of a replacement for the standard-issue Boy Scout compass. I can think of a million projects based on these sensors and hope to find time to play with them in the future.

The venerable 8051 is still used everywhere by everyone. If you're willing to teach the essence of 8051-work, there are a lot of cheap development platforms listed at 8052.com (www.8052.com/links.phtml).

Texas Instruments sells a variety of development kits for their wonderful MSP430 series of processors. These 16-bitters offer a lot of performance for little money. I've got their $49 Flash Emulation Tool (http://focus.ti.com/docs/toolsw/folders/print/msp-fet430x110.html) and find it's a great platform for experimenting. The kit comes with a compiler and debugger, though stripped down to handle only small programs.

The ubiquitous PIC processor has a lot of support. One site that offers inexpensive development boards, plus a good book, is Chuck Hellebuyck's Electronic Products (www.downtowninternet.com/elproducts/products.htm).

For kids who aren't complete novices, Imagine Tool's Micro-processor Starter Kit (http://imaginetools.com/products/MicroStarterKit.shtml) is a Rabbit-based board with parts and instructions. Build a ranger, GPS clock, thermostat control, and many other things. The Rabbit comes with Dynamic C, and interactive version of the language that doesn't require explicit link and download steps. When my son had to build a school project that illuminated light bulbs in various patterns based on switch settings, I suggested using a computer instead of a lot of wires and diodes. We stuffed an ImagineTools board into the project. He knew no C, so I wrote the device drivers and showed him the elements of the language. In a few hours he had a working system, one that apparently worked around the point of the lesson and nicely ticked off the teacher.

The web site www.avrfreaks.net offers several hundred projects, all free, all on-line, ranging from the deadly dull innards of filesystems to robotics, MP3 players, telescope controllers, and much more. This very deep site devoted entirely to the AVR line of processors also lists tools, free and otherwise. Read the “Newbie's Guide to AVR Development” and pass the wisdom on to an interested kid.

For parts and supplies it's hard to beat Digikey (www.digikey.com), which has everything electronic, from resistors to complete development platforms. I find their web site very hard to use; get a free printed catalog. Small Parts (http://smallparts.com) is a great source for petite gears, drives, bearings, and more. The mother of all sites for anything mechanical is McMaster-Carr (www.mcmaster.com), whose service is astonishing (I get my orders the next day without paying for expedited shipments). They have everything. Need a bit of stainless angle iron? No problem. Fasteners? You'll find all sorts on-line. Tools, plastic, rubber, gears, handles—it's all there. The printed catalog, which isn't needed as the site is so good, runs over 4,000 pages, so you get the idea of the extent of their products.

Wrapping up
Dean Kamen, inventor of many things including the Segway (I'm dying to try one of these!) started FIRST (www.usfirst.org), an international organization devoted to helping young people become excited about science and engineering. Some 14,000 professionals mentor kids and help them in robotics competitions. Winners get 200 scholarships valued at an average $25,000. Losers have a fantastic time building robots, working with their peers, and learning a lot of new things. Check out the web site to see if there's a local team.

And then get involved, either with FIRST or by sharing your passion with an interested kid. Make an difference in one young person's life.

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 .


  1. U.S. Census Bureau, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2003,” U.S. Department of Commerce, August 2004. www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/p60-226.pdf
  2. Freescale Semiconductor, “HCO5: M68HC05 Family, Understanding Small Microcontrollers.”www.freescale.com/files/microcontrollers/doc/ref_manual/M68HC05TB.pdf
  3. Silver, Ward. Ham Radio for Dummies . Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2004.
  4. “ARRL Handbook,” published every year by the American Radio Relay League in Newington, CT.
  5. Mims III, Forrest. Engineer's Mini-Notebook: 555 Timer IC Projects . (Siliconcepts, 1984). Also: Mims III, Forrest. Timer, Op Amp, and Optoelectronic Circuits & Projects, Vol. 1 Engineer's Mini Notebooks . Lincolnwood, Il: Master Publishing Inc., 2000.
  6. Mims III, Forrest. Getting Started in Electronics, Third Editio n. Lincolnwood, IL: Master Publishing Inc., 2003.
  7. Horowitz, Paul and Winfield Hill. The Art of Electronics, Second Edition . Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  8. Simon, David. An Embedded Software Prime r. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1999.
  9. Hyder, Kamal and Bob Perrin.. Embedded Systems Design using the Rabbit 3000 Microprocessor . Burlington, MA: Elsevier/Newnes, 2005.

Reader Response

Greetings Jack,

Last week, my 7th grade son had an assignment for English class to create a 3-minute presentation on; “what are my long term goals and what will I need to do in 8th grade to move towards them.” I was thrilled that my son's goal is to become an engineer.

To nurture his interest of how things work and electronics, I am planning to give him one of our old obsolete computers and helping him transform/upgrade it into a new computer.

Thanks for the great article.

– Dale Mayes
Independent Consultant
Home Port Engineering LLC

I used to think along those lines: wanting my children to experience the thrill of implementing their creations in electronics and software. With my help and encouragement, my son earned his Novice license at age 9, right before the FCC eliminated that class and the accompanying Morse code requirement. However, I have no problem that my daughter is pursuing speech/communications and my son intends to become an MD. Both of these fields can lead to careers that are not likely to be outsourced to another country.

Apart from the outsourcing issue, I hope my children can avoid the bitter disappointment, frustration, and stress that I have experienced working for insecure, technically clueless managers. I suppose all fields have their share of managers who are bullshit artists with hidden agendas. I just hope my children find careers that are more tolerable than what mine has become.

To answer your opening question, “So why not get the next generation interested in embedded systems design?” I don't want to see my kids get their passion, joy, and self-esteem kicked out of them.

– John Burt

This afternoon I will be taking a class of children aged between 9 and 11 at Ledbury Primary School. The children will be making up their first electronic circuit board; identifying the components, soldering them into the board and seeing whether it works. This is all part of an initiative by the UK Engineering Council, which provides the kits for the course. Hopefully there will be some that will be inspired to further adventures in electronics.

I cannot predict where electronics may go but there will still be adventures to be had.

– Ian Okey
Principal Engineer
Satamatics Limited

Of course Jack, this country will always need engineers. Obviously though, this country doesn't need those engineers living here. India, China, Russia, and others are mere nanoseconds away by fiber.

– Jim Montville

Hi Jack,
Another good book by my ex-boss (we worked @ AMD briefly before being “downsized”): Embedded Systems Design, An Introduction to Processes, Tools, & Techniques , by Arnold S. Berger (PhD), CMP Books, 2002. Though I haven't read it fully, it's got lots of good information, and excellent references. Speaking of embedded systems, I recently attended a grad party for the computer engineers @ RIT. I've been out 22 years. One of my professors, who was new to the CE department my senior year, asked me about our embedded systems course. Gee, didn't know there would be a quiz? He prompted me and sure enough, I remembered the project: MC6809 Heart Monitor. And it's still used today for the CE students (who don't see/appreciate the value in measuring a heartbeat in real time and outputting some sounds, etc). Ahh, those were the good ole' days! ! !

– Stephen Beckwith
MTS, Embedded Software Engineer
Agere Systems

As a very young software engineer with a side business that involves embedded development, I appreciate and exemplify the point of this article. I remember soldering with my dad when I was six years old, and I remember etching my first PCB with my dad when I was 17–it was for an IR-based obstacle avoidance system that won a state robotics fair for high school. By that time, I was already a professional software engineer. When I got to be 19 years old, I developed my first embedded project and started a business to sell it commercially–this time without my dad's help. Nowadays my dad and I occasionally collaborate as peers in electronic design, and I even advise him on how to accomplish embedded tasks. I have two patent applications in the works right now, and they both center around embedded logic. I'm thankful for being turned-on to electronics and engineering at an early age, and I try to pass on my enthusiasm to others.

I wanted to point out another good resource for learning–the Lego Mindstorms kit. I used it for my robotics project in high school. It has a brain that can control motors, read sensors, and execute programs. The programs are developed with a visual language that even kids can have fun with, and there is an ActiveX control available for the more experienced kids. I'm not sure of the availability of this kit now, because I bought mine in 1999.

– David Creel

Don't forget about LEGO mindstorms and the many alternative languages available for it including pbForth (which I know Jack hates but it's fun for kids 🙂

– Ralph Hempel

What a trip down memory lane! I, too, got my start as a young teen. I started out with model rockets, but was tired of loosing them during recovery (small field in a crowded city problem). So I hooked up with a friend who had a Radio Shack electronics education kit and built a homing beacon. That did it! I was hooked ever since.

A note about the Lego Mindstorms: There is a semi C IDE called NQC (not quite C). This is an awesome IDE for developing programs for the robots in a C like language. It comes with many new constructs/functions that make controlling/debugging the robot easy. Any high school student could learn the language in a jiffy and develop multitasking robotic applications. Also, there are a number of web sites out there for creating your own sensors. My favorite is one that multiplexes 4 inputs using a single Mindstorm input. Wish I had this when I was a teen!

– Rick P
Software Engineer
Honeywell International Inc

Nice work, Jack. While some of us (myself included) have been spending a little bit too much time lamenting what has happened to the outlook of our careers in embedded systems, you've been doing something that might actually improve that outlook.

– Michael N9BDF (Michael J. Linden)

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