Editorial Notebooks

Personal projects sharpen skills

Personal projects can be an important and fun learning experience as an engineer. Over Winter Break, I decided to start a personal project in my fields of study electrical engineering and computer and systems engineering. I started making a RGB LED matrix. An RGB LED matrix utilizes many different concepts used in my field, such as multiplexing, shift registers/serial-to-parallel conversion, transistors, diodes, microcontrollers, and programming. I dedicated about half of my break learning about those concepts which I did not already know about and started the design and construction of the matrix in such a way that it could be expanded into a larger version; I would not be able to transport a large matrix on the plane from Texas or Florida. Since I have come back to RPI, my plan was to expand the programming into more complex functions so that text and patterns could be displayed, but just like every other project in the world, there was a problem with the design. The shift registers used my design introduced noise into the signal lines when shifting in the serial data, causing anything that did not have every single LED turned on to display random colors instead of being off. To solve the problem, I went to the ultimate place to buy things for electronics, sketchy eBay stores that ship out of Hong Kong! Unfortunately, there are a few problems with ordering from foreign countries; it takes about a month to get a package from them, and they frequently send the wrong items in the post, meaning that you must wait another month to get the right item. Anyone interested in seeing it can see my project flashing in the window in the front of Davison Hall.

For all the electrical engineers or anyone interested in electronics and building electronic based projects, there is a new lab that opened up last semester on the sixth floor of the Jonsson Engineering Center, the Mercer Lab. The lab’s hours are just about all day every weekday. To get in, all you have to do is knock on the door and a lab assistant will let you in, and it is completely free for students to work in. Parts are supplied (when you have a legitimate use for them) as are solder and other consumables. The lab is equipped with many awesome solder irons/specialized hot air guns, oscilloscopes, LCRs, signal analyzers, and variable power supplies, as well as a pick and place, a reflow oven, and an environmental chamber. Everything you could every need to make through-hole circuits and surface mount circuits is in this lab, so I suggest you go check it out if you think anything above sounds cool. If you don’t have any tools or anything, it’s a great place where you can start tinkering on your own projects!

Lastly, join project-based clubs, such as the Embedded Hardware Club. The members you will find there have a wealth of knowledge as well as guidance which they are willing to share with you. It’s a good way to get started on a project, if you don’t yet feel comfortable working on something by yourself.

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