How to teach how to PCB?

The­se days, a use­ful qual­i­ty to have is the endurance to weath­er the dis­in­ter­est­ed gaze—collimated through glass­es thick and trans­par­ent as hock­ey pucks—of gath­ered young engi­neers lis­ten­ing with open mouths and a slight­ly hunched backs. It freaks me out that I now have a solid decade’s worth of prac­tice doing this, thanks to lead­ing and teach­ing pro­to-engi­neers since mid­dle school, yet hum­bling to think that there are heroes who do this as a life­long career.

The trick is to ignore the com­plete apa­thy and list­less bore­dom your audi­ence wears on their faces. That’s just how engi­neers show inter­est. Now that every­one has smart­phones, a high­er qual­i­ty sig­nal for your patrons’ fas­ci­na­tion with you is notic­ing the low fre­quen­cy by which they poke at Face­book.

Most recent­ly, I’m proud to have taught a three-part work­shop on print­ed cir­cuit board (PCB) fab­ri­ca­tion as part of the GT Inven­tion Studio/Makers Club fall series. Among oth­er records set this semes­ter, this was the first time ever that the Inven­tion Stu­dio was inhab­it­ed by an elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing major­i­ty1, when oth­er­wise it com­pris­es mechan­i­cal engi­neers with grease guns and cres­cent wren—UGGHRRR WOW THREADS SUCH METAL MUCH FEEDS & SPEEDS. It felt weird, but smelled bet­ter than any­one hoped for.

On top of atten­dance, recep­tion to the PCB work­shop was great. Peo­ple had all pulled out their lap­tops with EAGLE already installed, as if they had read the emails I had sent out. I was sur­prised to hear that use­ful knowl­edge had dif­fused into the crowd.

The work­shop was split over three days, and I had dig­i­tal mate­ri­als pre­pared for each one. The first and last ses­sions used Keynote pre­sen­ta­tions, while the in-between ses­sion had paper hand­outs. You can down­load the­se in PDF by click­ing on them.

Day 1

Overview of hack­ing hard­ware and EAGLE demo. I used my inter­pre­ta­tion of the Charles fla­vor of impart­ing knowledge—learning by facil­i­tat­ing projects. I dis­closed my ide­ol­o­gy and moti­va­tion, then deci­phered jar­gon with a glos­sary, and final­ly pro­vid­ed a list of tools and ven­dors. At the end, I had every­one design a board on the spot.

PCB workshop I

Day 2

How to cre­ate cus­tom parts in EAGLE. I snuck in some key­board short­cuts and best prac­tices talks in here. This is the tricky part of hands-on teach­ing: to pass on knowl­edge through osmo­sis by work­ing next to each oth­er. Nor­mal­ly this is while work­ing on sim­i­lar projects, but that’s dif­fi­cult to repli­cate for the sake of a work­shop.

PCB workshop II

Day 3

Where and how to make boards or get boards made. Since I was sick and this was dur­ing Dead Week, this became more of a round-table Q&A ses­sion than a lec­ture. How­ev­er, this worked out to be a great “wrap” for the work­shop and I was able to get a bit of feed­back through it.

The slides I cre­at­ed for this ses­sion, how­ev­er, are the most use­ful out of all the mate­ri­als. The set con­tains tables of var­i­ous PCB fabs that I’ve had some sort of expe­ri­ence with. They include poor­ly researched specs, lead times, and true costs2 (setup fees, unit cost, ship­ping & han­dling) along with some anec­do­tal notes.

PCB workshop III

I was a bit shocked that every­thing had gone so smooth­ly. The pac­ing was espe­cial­ly impor­tant in the first session’s EAGLE demo. There, I put up each part I used and its library on the white­board, and sec­ond­ly I had pre­pared EAGLE libraries and fin­ished schematics/layouts to be shared on Drop­box.

The for­mer meant every­one could fol­low regard­less of their pace, and the lat­ter meant I only need­ed to show EAGLE tech­niques once—after that, I’m free to pull out the neat, proof­read design files like Rachel Ray pulls out chick­en drumettes mar­i­nat­ed overnight in lemon and soy sauce. In addi­tion to min­i­miz­ing Murphy’s Law demo mishaps, it also gave me the chance to take a breather, walk around, and do one-on-one’s with any­one hav­ing trou­ble.

Obvi­ous­ly, what also helps pac­ing is hav­ing a con­trolled num­ber of focused, eager stu­dents. With a class of about 10 to 15, it wasn’t impos­si­ble to make sure every­one was fol­low­ing.

By the last ses­sion, peo­ple were bring­ing in their projects and devk­its they had bought to play with. That was nifty! I’m incred­i­bly for­tu­nate to have had such an excel­lent audi­ence. I’m super moti­vat­ed to try this again, hope­ful­ly with improve­ments.

  1. Aside from when I’m in there alone. >.> []
  2. Using Baby­Corn­troller‘s 4.95″×4.95″ pow­er stage Tiny­Husk as an exam­ple. []