John Kauffman

John Kauffman

School: Arlington & Fairfax Public Schools: Adult and Community Education

Grade Levels: Adult Education

Courses Taught: Robotics 1, Robotics 2, Seminar for teachers on using Parallax kits


What are the main learning objectives in your course?

My students are adults looking for a hobby or to solve a specific problem. The primary objective is to nurture their interest in microcontrollers. The syllabus is available at the link below, but class time follows the students' interest. Recently there was a request for soldering, so I brought my coffee can of irons and we put together S2 badges.

Robotics 1 "The Brain" covers most of What's a Microcontroller?. Robotics 2 "The Body" covers the robot-specific topics for the Boe-Bot robot. Each course is 5 or 6 meetings of 3 hours in the evening.

A new course in development: Robotics 3 will cover serial and parallel input, the PING))) Ultrasonic Distance sensor, controlling higher power, rotary encoding and real time with the Dallas1302.


Which Parallax items do you use in your course?

Each student buys a Boe-Bot Robot kit and downloads the What's a Microcontroller? text. Since the first course is basically What's a Microcontroller?, I give them a 10k potentiometer and a 7-segment display w/resistors. I also have a tray of capacitors and resistors that they can take to expand their RCTime data set.

The Robotics 3 will use:

  • Serial comm: EEPROM for memory
  • Parallel comm: LCD display
  • Real-time: Dallas 1302
  • Rotary encoding: Boe-Bot encoder
  • Sonic ranging: PING
  • Control of higher current: transistor, Darlington chip, relay


Describe the experience for you and your students.

A key for working with adults is to listen to what they want to learn and then adjust the syllabus.

I keep talking to a minimum. I have condensed each concept down to a half dozen statements and drawings and then start them on activities.

I think it is important for adults to be able to ask me off-topic questions. While they do the activities I go around 1-on-1 to help. They quickly learn that is their opportunity to ask me anything. Last week a guy brought a servo contraption from his train layout and I worked with him on some tricky multi-servo control.

Another advantage of adults in our area is that they can afford to buy what they fancy. If my Ping))) Ultrasonic Distance Sensor is of interest to them, they will have one in hand next class.

Finally, it is sometimes hard to teach an old dog new tricks.  Older adults don't remember as well; I don't get upset by it. Also they may have a mental model of a process and it is difficult to revise that for a micro-controller process. It takes patience and persistence; I try to have several ways to explain every concept. On the other hand some are retired engineers or technicians, so they are far more experienced than me in some topics.


What is your favorite Parallax product and why?

What's A Microcontroller? and the Boe-Bot are the best two things that ever happened for hobbyists. The current special on both in one box is everything I could ask for.

My next favorite "product" is the Parallax forum site and support in general.

I've used a pack of Homework boards for two purposes. First, late registrants frequently don't have the kit by first class so I can hand them a Homework board and couple of components to get through the first night. Second is that it is a drag to build and re-build circuits during class. So I pre-build demo circuits on Homework boards and line them up in class. At some point I'd like to solder up each activity on a separate perf board and have them ready to just place over the Board of Education breadboard and plug into the sockets of the Board of Education headers.


Any tips for other teachers? has videos for tricky topics, mnemonics sheets and a puzzler.

When a component is "lost" check the bottom of students' sneakers.

I have run "Parent and Student" courses where they both sign up and share a kit. Parents have appreciated a night out 1/week with their child. The students take pride in my complimenting them on their work in front of Mom or Dad. I gave this course once a few kilometers from the Canadian National Research Council. Four out of the six Dads were PhD's in EE or Acoustics. I was a little nervous but they had great contributions and said it was a gas to do some simple, hands-on projects rather than their normal theoretical research.


Any other comments?

Take advantage of the extra challenges at the end of chapters.


Additional Resources: