I have a revelation to make. I've been passionate about Makers-related things for some time now. As the editor of this blog, I talk about Arduino quite often. I've touched Arduino chips, and talked to Makers who use them. But, until last week, I'd never actually tried to use it myself.

Although Arduino is billed as something relatively simple to use, it still involves basic electronics and basic programming, two things traditionally relegated to a level of geekdom well beyond my own capacities and desires. I was very lucky that FabLab Firenze is offering a series of free Arduino workshops, open to rank beginners like me. I signed up and found myself in an ambience with friendly instructors and participants in front of whom I could ask stupid questions and not be laughed at.

If you're interested in opening up the possibilities of making things with Arduino, the best thing to do is to participate in a workshop like this. Assuming that course in other cities might be similar - although each is subject to the instructor's own techniques - here's what you might expect from a beginner workshop in Arduino, in my own very non-scientific words. If I could understand this, you can too.

Our workshop started out in the classroom. Held at the Florentine co-working Multiverso, it was taught by Luciano Cantini of Kentstrapper and Daniele d'Arrigo of Make Ausili. Both instructors very modestly claimed to not be experts, but they seemed pretty able to me.

Daniele started off with a useful definition of Arduino: it's a cheap microcomputer that communicates inputs (software) with physical outputs. So basically, it's a way to program things in the physical world.

We started by learning the physical basics of the Arduino chip projected on the screen - starting with the UNO, because the layout is pretty much the same in the Leonardo. Inputs, outputs, power. Got it. We found out that there is software that you can download from arduino.cc for mac or pc, and that this is necessary to tell the chip what to do.

The programs you write (or download or alter) for Arduino are called Sketches, and they are structured with three basic sections: a kind of "header" where you set the variables (like telling it which holes you're using and for what, like "hey, there's a LED in hole number 2"), a second header area called "setup" where you let the chip know which parts are inputs and which are outputs, and then the meaty part called the loop, which is where the action happens. This contains the instructions of the program, which have to work in a loop. (If I have messed this up, I'm sure someone will let me know, right?)

Once a Sketch is done, you upload it onto the Arduino chip, where it resides in an internal memory. Luckily, you don't have to write programs from scratch if you're not so inclined, because  there are lots of samples already in the program, plus tons of snippets of code openly available online from which you can build your own software Frankenstein. After this quick orientation, I felt ready to get my hands on a chip, and so did the others, so we moved into another room where we divided into groups.

We started out with a simple sample project from those available already inside Arduino's software: making a LED blink. We then combined two samples to make a LED that blinks, that can also be turned on and off by a push-button. If you've ever tinkered with HTML, this code is pretty similarly easy to use. I rather fearlessly copied, pasted and went for it. As for the physical hookup, it was sort-of self explanatory once someone kindly explained to me how circuits work (I never paid attention in science).

The fun part comes when you hook up the Arduino to your computer and see that you were actually able to make something work. Even if, then, you realize that it just took you three hours and the help of three engineers to turn on a light.

Yours truly learning alongside our instructor, Luciano.

I came out of this workshop ready to order my own starter kit and looking forward to the next session. I was also wondering how long it would be until I would be able to make something more meaningful than a light-switch (I mean, light-switches are super useful, don't get me wrong, but it felt kinda like I was reinventing the wheel, here). I don't have an answer to this - maybe someone reading this blog could let us know - but what I realized is this:

All you need to MAKE something is an IDEA.

Find a problem, and think about what physical item could solve it. Then, break down the steps to making that physical item work. Chances are, Arduino can help you make that happen. Thanks to the generous community behind this open-source hardware and software, even the least scientific person (that is I) may have the possibility to build something useful and cool.

With thanks to FabLab Firenze, Daniele and Luciano!


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