What is the Arduino?

Spaghetti Lab grew out of a project that I did at OCAD University called Sound Spaghetti. It was a synthesizer to teach kids how sound is generated. I built the project using the Arduino, and after it was done I was more interested in teaching how this platform worked more than I was in continuing to design hardware synthesizers. Because teaching the art of invention options up more possibilities beyond selling a good that is rather disposable or substitutable.

Elliott with Sound Spaghetti

So here at Spaghetti Lab, I use the Arduino platform to help teach you how to build art projects with electronics. These lessons span many different disciplines under the umbrella of STEAM education, which include engineering and technology. So what is the Arduino and how does it fit into this picture?

Starting from the top, Arduino is a foundation based in Italy. They created a physical object, which is the Arduino board, with complimentary software that lets you write programs and upload them to the board. At the heart of the project is a chip called the ATmega which was mostly used by engineers before the Arduino foundation came up with a way to make it more user friendly to other audiences such as artists and casual tinkerers. Now of course, engineers are able to make use of the Arduino for prototyping purposes. 

The board works in conjunction with other components, such as LED lights, knobs, joysticks and hundreds of other modules. It is able to send out pulses to turn on and off the lights, or read information from sensors. This allows you to prototype inventions, art installations, or conduct science experiments. It is also commonly used for teaching robotics, as well.

The Arduino Board

Arduino UNO Board

Arduino UNO Board

The board is like a mini-computer, except that it only does simple tasks. A more accurate term for it is actually “micro-controller”. There are numerous variations of the Arduino board, the most common being the Uno model. It is the most practical starting point for people learning how to use the Arduino. There is also the Mega, which is bigger and has more functionality, the Lilypad, which is designed for sewable or wearable circuits, and then the Edison, which was designed in conjunction with Intel, and has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth right on it.

The Arduino Software

Arduino Software

Arduino Software

Arduino has created an application which runs on Mac, Windows and Linux, and it lets you write code and upload it to the board, which is commonly done over USB when you’re starting out (later on you can upload it over Bluetooth and WiFi). These programs are known as “firmware” which is probably familiar to you if you’ve ever had to update something like an e-reader or an older cellphone.

There is also now the option to upload programs to your Arduino using the web browser, using the Arduino Create website. While this is a fantastic initiative, I have found that sometimes the process of signing up can be a little confusing. Either way you go, both options are found on this page.

The Arduino Ecosystem

While the Arduino foundation designs and manufactures boards, part of what makes Arduino so fascinating is that it is an open source platform. That means there are other options for entering into the Arduino world without buying the official boards. Dozens if not hundreds of third-parties make Arduinos. I support these boards for students and artists who are getting started and are not sure if this is the direction they want to go. Later on they can always purchase official boards.

If you are running a third-party Arduino, it is possible that you will have to install an extra driver to work with the Arduino software.

Beyond Arduino

Some of the skills acquired in working with the Arduino include:

  • Electronic circuits
  • The Prototyping Mindset
  • Fine-Motor skills in assembling projects
  • Programming using the Arduino IDE

However it is just the tip of the iceberg in working with DIY electronics. Once a student has achieved a level of skill on this platform, they will want to explore new directions such as learning how to program a WiFi board known as the ESP8266 or go deeper into designing their own circuit boards (known as PCB design), and integrating them elegantly into a casing. Alongside 3D printing, the options for people interested in learning product design for areas such as IoT, robotics, agriculture, medicine and art using these tools are plentiful.