Of faults and remedies!

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How in the effing hell did you do that?

Calyph shrugged. “I’m an Engineer,” he said simply, as if it would explain everything.”
― April Adams, Drawing the Dragon

The number of engineers graduating continues to grow every year, yet various studies put a question mark over the employ-ability of these graduates. To young, newly college going 1st year students pursuing an engineering degree, such news can be very disheartening. On the other hand, there is a shortage of graduates that can fill engineering roles in the industry, especially in hardware and software profiles. With the tech industry focusing and working towards IoT and cloud computing, there seems to be newfound opportunity for those who are yet to graduate. It may be a strange dichotomy, but for freshers in engineering colleges, it is time to take heart and do something that will help them in their transition from an engineering college to an engineering job.

Engineers are made not merely by attending lectures and making lab reports; they are made well by cultivating inquisitiveness, resourcefulness, an appetite for developing working practical solutions for real-live problems and above all, by getting their hands dirty and tinkering, testing and building stuff!

In our series of Hackathons at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, New Delhi, we conducted our second 2-Day workshop -cum-hackathon, the theme being:Indoor Agriculture. (Read about the 1st hackathon we did at IIIT-D on Air Pollution.) Our aim for doing this was to help students in their first semester of engineering college to not only get a perspective on the current technologies being used but also to give them a chance to work on something tangible in order to get a taste of things early on, instead of sitting around and waiting till they are in their second or third year of college. Moreover, anything done outside class gotta be fun, right?

The problem statement given was as follows: Delhi has gotten severely polluted, and plants required for day to day use are unable to grow in the region. The Smoke has travelled far and wide, creating havoc for agriculture. Delhi wants to implement Warehouses in which plants will grow indoors, to do this – engineers have to come up with a device, that will measure Light Intensity, Temperature, Humidity and Carbon Dioxide Levels in the Warehouse environment, and Visualise this Data for Decision Making.

Read that statement and imagine that you are a month old college goer, fresh out of school, still adjusting to the new life away from home and trying to wrap your head around the material being taught in your lectures. Feels intimidating, does it not? I have been in engineering school and if someone had asked me to build a solution to that in my first semester, I’d have been stumped. So were the 40 odd young men and women from Electronics Engineering background; this was going to be pretty challenging to do on their own.

They were though, not on their own. After splitting them into 8 groups of 5, MakersBox team began to teach and assist the students how to go about this. Being a two day hackathon,on the first day, we first introduced them to basics of Arduino, various types of sensors, how to collect and visualise data, how to build solutions by understanding and implementing algorithms, flow-charts as well as illustration, how this all tied up to the Internet of Things plus the basics of Indoor Agriculture. This was more of an interactive session to help the students get started rather than spoon feeding all the information in form of a timed lecture.

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It was evident that the participants had fun learning about all this new jam, but engineering solutions are engaging, demanding endeavours and the students recognised this as they began work on their solution. When the first day came to an end, they had failed some, succeeded some, but worked on “Defining Data Sets and Writing an Algorithm for Capture, Researching on How they will build a solution and come up with a BlueprintResearching about Hardware Box and What can be done and lastly identifying and designating what team member would work on what part of the solution, with varying degree of freedom about it.”

As the second day of the workshop dawned, the teams were briefed about the tools in the common area and how to use them plus the safety measures they ought to take while working with the tools. Then on, it was go-time! “Teams had to use the hardware kits they had been provided to implement their solution by integrating code with hardware using sensors to collect data plus LEDs to represent the meaningful data in some form. Coupled with this was documentation of the entire process, an overview for the next step after their build was completed along with a presentation by the whole team about their solution.” 

The teams were free to consult with peers as well as our organising team-members. The thing was we’d never lay it all for them, merely pointed them in the right direction. Initially, this was cause of some frustration on part of the participants, but they soon understood the intent behind it:

there is a certain skill development while trying to find answers on your own, something you won’t learn if it is handed out by someone else.

As the noon set to evening, the teams managed to not only meet minimum requirements needed for their solution to be marked as satisfactory, but amongst the 8 teams, there was also a certain degree of variation in terms of approach, representation and overall build. This variation was an important indicator of the success of the Hackathon we had held. In their presentations, each team showcased that their overall experience had been one of learning and joy. Many participants admit that the hackathon had instilled in them a confidence to work with electronics in order to solve problems, a confidence they said that had been lacking owing to no prior experience of this sorts.

With each word of appreciation and gratitude mete to us by the departing students as they smiled thinking about what they had accomplished, the future of engineering as a field, seemed brighter to us all!

Do you want to organise a hackathon of a workshop for your college or school, get in touch with us!

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