Where It Came From

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I’m in the latter stages of a long career in electronic design – I started at age 11 when I picked up my brother’s cast-off crystal radio kit and eventually made it work, quickly becoming enamored of building electronic devices.

I was lucky in many ways, having a basement workshop and a supply of radio and TV chassis which I stripped completely for the parts. One of my father’s network of friends signed over to me a radio and TV repair correspondence course which he had lost interest in. Test equipment I could never hope to own came in the mail!

Even with all this help I resisted seeking out mentoring relationships that could have guided me to do more and better. Occasionally I wonder what might have happened if I had not been so resistant, and that led to wondering what kind of device I could design that would help future generations of young people.

The answer came to me with the PAL series of programmable logic chips, introduced in 1978. I found them highly understandable and learned my first elements of the C language syntax from one of the compilers, because I could see so clearly what the programming symbols caused to happen.

I began to toy with a design I called “Kids’ PALs” – the same device design but opened up so the learner could physically construct logic relationships. This would be the answer to the challenge of providing metaphors to explain digital operations – a necessity for learning programming.

Then I found out that universities were beginning to eliminate teaching about bit operations from their computer science curricula. This would remove the students even farther from the operations taking place in the hardware. Supposedly that was all right because it is said that “everything is done in high level languages these days”.

This aroused me to more purposeful action – I knew that learning bit operations does not require math or a college education. Middle school age learners could handle it like I handled learning electronics. I built a simple first prototype and used it at early “Hack the Future” events where middle-school age students came for a day’s hackathon. This way I learned how young people could learn digital fundamentals.

Only in the late stages of my design work did I understand how to incorporate a way for mentors on the Internet to examine the structure created by the learner so they could help students who run into trouble. Of course, this also meant that a structure would have to be created so that the mentors could be connected with learners. That, and the large number of possible projects that could be built with the device, meant that the task ahead was creating an entire segment of the STEM educational field.

I had experienced this same problem in the personal computer industry’s growth, so I knew how to approach it. I would have to create the design of a device useful as both a tool and a toy – using it had to be fun. Next, this device had to get into the hands of people who understood the need and the opportunity of creating “courseware” – projects and the necessary how-to instruction.

Now I’m ready to let the device loose. I’m eagerly looking forward to how it gets used by middle-school age students. I hope that most of the young users will move on to learning programming as the work becomes much easier than before. Others will explore the field of “state machines” and how to use them to make physical devices like robots work. And some will pursue the artistic aspect of making light patterns plus whatever they can connect to dance.

Lee Felsenstein