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I'm a computer scientist with zero exposure to things directly related to hardware (barring what I learned from my undergrad computer org class.)

I've been very attracted to the field of embedded software and computer engineering, and I've been trying to find a class/lab where I can learn and practice the fundamentals of circuits and electronics.

Regarding the theory, I can learn that from books, and I have a few. Or I can take some undergrad courses from a local university (offered both within brick walls and in distance learning format.)


The problem: Labs

However, the problem is the practicum, the labs. The closest university has the labs during the day. The other local university has lab classes at night, but they are too far to drive. As a working software developer, then I really have no options to sign up for a lab class to get my hands dirty.

What would be the value of learning from books (or from classes) if I don't get to a lab? The stuff they do at EE labs (the typical electronics lab I class), is that something I can learn on my own? If so, how?

I'm trying to close this skills gap I have in front of me and get more into Computer Engineering. The last thing I want to be is a paper tiger with all theory and no practice. But the labs are always during times of the day that conflict with my work schedule.

Any advice?

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5 Answers 5

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My thoughts:

What would be the value of learning from books (or from classes) if I don't get to a lab?

The lab is fundamental for electronics. There are several things that you can't learn from books.

The stuff they do at EE labs (the typical electronics lab I class), is that something I can learn on my own? If so, how?

Yes, you can learn for your own. Nowadays it's easier because you have a lot of books, Google, YouTube, MIT, etc. And you can solve your doubts here or others foruns.

Any advice?

  • You can invest the money you would spend on college and build your own lab.
  • Look for a hackerspace near from you. It's a nice place to learn electronics.
  • Take a look at the begginer tag for more tips.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for hacker spaces, definitely worth checking out, they're springing up everywhere at the moment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 5, 2010 at 18:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, will look into it. The hard part is figuring out how to build my own lab (like what kind of equipment I would need, etc.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 5, 2010 at 22:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1000 for building your own lab. When you leave college, you loose access to the tools. If you build your own lab, they're yours forever. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 6, 2010 at 3:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @luis.espinal, take a look here: electronics.stackexchange.com/questions/3382/… \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 6, 2010 at 17:37
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Personally speaking - I've gotten a lot out of taking old stuff apart and trying to figure the circuit out (just stay away from those massive capacitors!!) I find stuff dumped in the street all the time and I like to take something apart almost every day (My house has become like a hostel for homeless electronics, people bring junk round all the time, I took apart in infra red remote control for a helicopter today, had a poke around the circuit and modified the accelerator so it's no longer springy) You'll probably need some basic test equipment, a soldering iron and some kind of prototyping board (Stripboard, Veroboard, breadboards...whatever) then you can just harvest components and circuits to experiment with, it shouldn't cost much.

You could get a little way with just a multimeter or two, if you can get a hold of an oscilloscope, then your sorted! - but they're expensive... I guess that's why labs are great, it's always good to try and get access to one when possible, even if it's just to talk to other engineers/students and use the nice expensive test equipment :)

Remember tho - BE SAFE, don't listen to me, don't mess about with the mains...bla bla bla...if you're not sure about something - don't bother! You can start with small electronic devices with batteries (I don't mean massive 12v car batteries!), then there's not so many dangers to worry about, except the sharp bits and the massive caps.

With regards to paper tigers - The only way to become an electrical engineer is to start building circuits! books and world wide webs are fine, but eventually you have to get your hands dirty.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I guess what's that got me down a bit when I started looking into this... the price of oscilloscopes and equipment like that. They are pricey! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 5, 2010 at 23:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can usually find good deals on old lab equipment on eBay. I bought a GoldStar analog oscilloscope there for about $75 and it works great. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 20, 2010 at 2:42
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You could make the lab experiences with a simulator. Being a computer scientist, it will be easier to you in order to learn how to use them.

There are lots of good free simulators ex: spice or KTechlab (a complete IDE for simulator, even microcontrolers).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That doesn't give you the lab experience of debugging the "I wired up wrong even though the schematic is right" problems. Or "where did that RF oscillation come from?" from real-world stray-capacitances. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 11:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ ... and simulators will never allow you to develop that skill for detecting electronic smoke. It could save your life once your working with the real thing. \$\endgroup\$
    – shimofuri
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 15:34
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Parallax has a series of education kits that combine learning electronics with their embedded processors. The BASIC Stamp Activity Kit is specifically designed for beginners learning about electronics in conjunction with a microcontroller. The Propeller Education Kit - 40 pin DIP Version is a somewhat more advanced kit which includes one of their Propeller microcontrollers with 8 cores (which they call cogs). Both sell for $100.

They also have a number of other analog and digital kits here.

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Computer Science majors and new embedded students have flourished with Arduinos.

I would spend time learning from places like SparkFun Tutorials and going through the Arduino Tutorials.

To master the circuits part, you need to spend serious time with a breadboard and electrical tools (voltmeter, o-scope, power supply). In addition to Hackerspaces, you might want to check for local robotics clubs in your area, sometime that can be a good resource to find hobbyists.

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