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. []