Chris Gammell's Analog Life

Analog electronics and everything else between 1 and 0

Month: June 2008 (page 1 of 3)

My volunteer idea

I’ve been thinking a lot about learning lately. I’d say the amount I’m still learning at work has a good amount to do with it. But I’ve been brainstorming a charity I would like to start.

I would like to start a charity that goes around to schools and promotes science and engineering to lower and middle income schools.

Not because I’ve been reading about how the country will be hurt by less engineers coming out of our schools. To be completely honest, that would work in my favor because I would be more rare and therefore more valuable. But really I want others to experience engineering. I want others to be curious about the world. I want to inspire some kid that’s going to create the space shuttle that makes it to Mars.

At first I was thinking that my idea was original. It wasn’t. A lot of companies have some great programs in place for this sort of thing. But what drives me here is that most programs I have found are more localized. Some programs are national, but they aren’t educational programs so much as they are activities (as they should be, hands on is crucial). I was also thinking possibly this excitement could be generated in kids from books. But there are already these out there too, some more subtle than others. I even read some of these when I was a kid and perhaps this is why I became an engineer in the first place.

What I envision is a national network of engineers who are “dealt” out to schools to present to children in their classrooms. These should be hands on or at least exciting presentations, similar to a “career day” where kids’ parents come in and tell what they do. It needs to be more exciting though. Most importantly, the kids MUST realize why they need to learn certain things in school and how they apply in real life. I think back to all the things I learned and subsequently forgot because I thought it wasn’t going to be necessary in “real life”. I’m sure this has happened to everyone. But you need to plant that seed so kids get excited about learning the math and the science that we always hear about faltering, so they know what they have to do to reach an eventual goal of inventing something or helping people with science.

When I was thinking that a book might be the correct route, I began to outline the ideas I had for topics. I think they would be relevant as a framework for a volunteer speaking in front of a classroom. Here are some of those initial ideas:

  1. Why is great about engineering? What do engineers do?
    1. Example products are a great way to excite kids because it’s something tangible. If you show them the latest iPhone and tell them about all the different components inside and how they need to be made, kids will listen. If you tell them about how a bridge is made and how much weight they can support (preferably in units of #’s of elephants), they will listen. When you tell them that you can create an artificial limb for someone to walk again, they will listen. Stress all the different types of engineering and science and you will pique a lot of individual interests.
    2. Stress the fact that they can change the world.
    3. Sure, most engineers will tell you that there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t great about being an engineer or a scientist, but that’s not how you inspire people. You don’t tell a bunch of aspiring doctors how they’ll have to deal HMOs, do you? You don’t talk to aspiring lawyers about the boredom and monotony of reading legal cases for civil suits, do you? In this case, you tell them about designing and being creative and making things that will help the world. All the things that all of us aspire to do every day, even if we don’t get to. Extra points to the presenter who gives ideas to kids on how to inspire their creativity.
  2. What do you need to know to be an engineer?
    1. Math
      • This is probably one of the hardest subjects in school based solely on the fact that it is abstract. I remember the day that my calculus teacher started talking about a math theorem in terms of cars. Or the day I found out what a fourier transform really represented instead of the math you had to do in order to get a solution. Abstraction is something that is not learned until later in life and kids need reinforcement on why math is important. Hook them young and you’ll have a math fan for life (the other option is to force them to learn math at first and hope they appreciate it later…doesn’t work)
    2. Science
      • This is the obvious one and probably allows for the most demonstrations that will excite kids. It would also be a good opportunity to tie in the different types of engineering.
    3. Business
      • This is definitely something that engineers need but would really be a better way to work in other subjects that might not be thought of as necessary for aspiring scientists and engineers. Even English and history could be worked in as being necessary for writing and context. The idea would be to stress that all subjects are important in some way or another.
  3. Where can you learn more?
    1. Your parents/Your teachers/Your heroes
      • Stress good role models to kids. This is done in many avenues but cannot be done enough. Stop kids idolizing Pacman Jones, introduce them to Dean Kamen or Stephen Hawking. Make sure they know that they can learn a lot from their teachers and to utilize them any way possible.
    2. Wikipedia/Books/The internet
      • Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. It taught him something dangerous and then he was careless with it. Teaching kids to be curious is very important and stressing that they will need to teach themselves is even more important. Teaching oneself and doing useful research should be a class unto itself in college, let alone elementary/middle/high school.
    3. Each other
      • The most important thing that any aspiring scientist/engineer can do is to try something out themselves. Build a radio with a friend. Build a race car with a friend. Build a treehouse with a friend. Learn how to work well with others and don’t ever be afraid of failing. You will learn the most in your life from the things you don’t do right the first time.

Finally, in order to get this type of volunteer opportunity off the ground I think there would be some initial hurdles to get over:

  1. Finding volunteers
    • One of the problems with having engineers speak in front of kids is that…they’re engineers. Not so much the awkwardness factor (although I’m sure that could be a problem), but really the “having-a-day-job” factor. You’d have to ask engineers to take time out of their day to go speak at a school That could prove difficult.
    • Also, there would have to be a screening process, as bad as it sounds. A presentation that is boring in front of kids could have the opposite effect. Perhaps just a trial run for the volunteers to make sure they’re keeping kids engaged.
  2. Finding acceptance in schools
    • The target schools here would be middle to lower income. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how receptive they would be to this idea, but there would definitely need to be planning.
    • Another hurdle would be maintaining contact. Say a volunteer goes to speak to kids once a year, then all the schools in an area would be covered pretty quickly. There would need to be an on-going effort with schools to maintain a program.
  3. Finding funding
    • Everything costs money. And similar to the point made above, engineers have day jobs, so someone would have to coordinate everything. That means assistants/interns/whoever and office supplies cost money. There could be a nominal fee to bring these people into schools, but then that contradicts with the above idea of middle-low income schools that might not have the funding. Perhaps there could be a corporate pairing (“JFK middle school loves Analog Devices!” t-shirts?) or perhaps with other professional organizations.
  4. Finding time
    • This is more of a personal thing. Sure I’d love to start this charity/volunteer thing, but it’s going to take some time to hash out and start up. If you’d like to help, let me know.

Creating (sorta) simple LED lighting for your home

An article about a new LED controller from Linear Technologies was the inspiration for this post. I decided upon seeing this article that it could be a good way to talk about a theoretical LED lighting scheme in your theoretical DC powered home.

One key I’ve learned to engineering is not trying to re-invent the wheel every time you start a project. In that spirit, I thought I would show case a new Linear Tech part that would fit well into an all DC powered home.

The basic idea of this circuit is to create a buck-boost converter, in order to pump more voltage into an array of power hungry (yet hopefully efficient) LEDs. Also there are other options on the chip to allow it to be even more versatile and act as a buck, boost, flyback or SEPIC, depending on setup and peripherals. Even though the listed applications are more for driving headlights and industrial applications (powering detection LEDs on an assembly line and then using a photo detector to determine changes), I believe this could work in a house wired with DC power in the walls. I believe a

Looking at the schematic on the EDN site, also directly linked here,  you can see that there are some external components that are required for this part, but are mostly in the realm of resistors for detecting shutdown currents or providing feedback to the circuit. A look at page 8 of the schematic shows just how complicated this circuit is and that you are probably saving yourself a good deal of trouble by using this instead of the individual components.

An added bonus for this new part is the dimmer control, with analog ratios of up to 10:1. That means that in our theoretical DC powered home of tomorrow (eat your heart out, Disney World!), we could wire in a simple dimmer with minimal cost, using an oscillator, a PWM generator, and a potentiometer built into a wall switch (and peripherals).  The dimmer control would also allow us to bring down the output current (via PWM_OUT) of the chip in order to save power.

The efficiency of this part can reach 94% in an inductive boost mode. Assuming there are no restrictions on some EMI emmitance issues and size of the parts, this could be a very good option for an LED lighting fixture in a home (with even simpler implementations also possible). Maybe one day we’ll see some wall fixtures with similar parts in them.

Modesty comes in bulk doses

I am not an analog engineer yet. But I’m learning how to be.

One of the things I love about my company is that they really allow for professional development. I will have the opportunity to go back to school and we have conferences on new technologies. Last week I was introduced to the another great opportunity, a meeting with the senior engineers of the company to just talk shop and bounce around ideas. Today we had another of our weekly meetings with each other and this time we had an outside vendor come in and present new product offerings. Here’s some of the things I learned:

  1. Analog engineers find favorite parts and stick to them
    • Say you’re a salesman. Do you think you’d be in a meeting and someone there would start gushing about the product you sold 10 years ago? How great it was? OK, say you’re a doctor. Do you hear other doctors talking about the great medicines and techniques that were used 10 years ago? No? Well, we do in analog engineering. Either by habit or price or whatever drives a man or woman to talk affectionately about an often-used piece of silicon, it’s kind of weird to hear it. Doubly so when you’re in a presentation for all the NEW stuff that is coming out and you expect the focus to be on that. To be fair, sometimes chip makers get it right one time and then can’t replicate it for a while. But that’s another blog post.
  2. The same point goes for books
    • I guess this point doesn’t really hold up when comparing analog designers to other professions. I’m sure doctors still read Grey’s Anatomy, Salesmen read Dale Carnegie and Priests still read the Bible. But there are some bibles in analog design too. In fact, that was the first meeting I mentioned above. We sat around talking about our favorite books. As someone who has just about no clue about everything, I’ve been grabbing at any knowledge I can get my hands on. I love books!
  3. If you used to work at a company and then come back as a vendor, watch out!
    • Yikes. I’ve seen some pretty rough treatment of vendors before, much worse than today actually (Semiconductor vendors REALLY get the shaft, that’s all I’ll say). But today I witnessed a vendor get hit from all sides. To be fair, I feel that a good deal of the treatment was because he used to work here and then became a vendor. This meant he had personal relationships with a lot of the engineers he was fielding questions from, but he still got some doozies. Makes me think twice about jumping into a field app position anytime soon (besides my cluelessness about it).
  4. There is actually some symbiosis between customers and vendors.
    • As I mention in point 3, I’ve seen some struggle between vendors and users. But today I saw some genuine attempts at bringing the needs of the customer back to the vendor, which gives me a warm professional fuzzy feeling. Plus I’ve heard they even deliver on some of their promises, another reason I’m glad I’m in this new sector (basically you had to be THE biggest player in the semiconductor market to really influence any change).
    • Another great thing is that I found out that some vendors offer free training to new guys like me. That is great because my job requires a little knowledge about a lot of things and then the ability to quickly acquire the remainder of any knowledge. Example: I am told a product isn’t working and it MIGHT be this or that part. Go. (That’s the point I start to scramble).
  5. Converse to the above point, analog engineers love asking for the moon.
    • Well, nothing is perfect, right? And in my experience, analog designers will ask for exactly what they want, even if it might never be possible. But if you don’t ask, you’ll never know, right? It reminds me of the phrase I use when I don’t get my way:
      • “All I want is everything I want right when I want it. Is that too much to ask?”
  6. I’ve mentioned it before, but I have a ton to learn
    • I wrote down no less than 6 things from that meeting that I had no clue what they were. That’s pretty crazy. I had a very general feeling about what they might be about (I actually found out some of them have applications in renewable energy), but I still have at least a good week of reading ahead of me (on top of my usual workload) to figure out what some of these things meant. When I came into this job thinking I’d be learning, I sure had it right.

So to reuse my blog headline, modesty does come in bulk doses when you’re an analog engineer, especially when you hang out with veterans. It’s kind of refreshing though, knowing that I have so much I can potentiall learn. I know it won’t get boring and I know the industry doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon either. Bring it on.

Older posts