Endeavor Circuitboard Project Opens Up World of STEM for Students

Getting the third LED light to blink on was becoming a significant headache.

Claudia Vargas and her classmates in the general science class at Endeavor Academy were building a light system using an Arduino USB Board, a programmable circuit board/microcontroller. By entering code into the board via a computer, Vargas' group had successfully programmed two of three lights to come on, but the third was being stubborn.

After troubleshooting and carefully following instructions in the manual, however, Vargas and the rest of the team succeeded, creating a tripartite light display. The success was particularly gratifying for Vargas, who never saw Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) studies as her strong suit.

"I never thought I'd take a class like this, just because I'm not really into (STEM) stuff like this," said Vargas, a 17-year-old senior at Endeavor. "But it turns out I'm actually pretty good at it."

Vargas isn't the only Endeavor student who's found enjoyment and fulfillment through high-tech projects via the Arduino boards. Thanks to a $1,000 Educator Initiative Grant from the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation, Endeavor Science Coordinator Dr. Diann Mazingo purchased 13 Arduino circuit board kits for her classroom earlier this year. The Educator Initiative Grants are part of the core goal of the Foundation, which focuses primarily on impacting all CCSD students, investing in innovation and building long-term relationships in the community.

At Endeavor, the Arduino equipment has given students a new level of access and insight into STEM projects, connecting them with tactile and challenging tasks with immediate and impressive results.

For example, students have used the Arduino equipment to design and execute tech projects ranging from mini light displays to sound boards. The Arduino boards combine lessons rooted in circuitry, physics, electricity, engineering and design for students with a wide range of interests and strengths.

"We are going through the tutorials right now, everything from building a little keyboard with five notes to applications like alarms," Mazingo said. "It's been a lot of fun to challenge the kids to take the basic projects in the manual and expand upon them."

That's where creativity comes in. Because of the flexibility and range of the equipment, students have been able to put their own twist on basic projects, incorporating an element of artistry in the STEM-based projects.

Gary Schlyer, a senior who's been working with the Arduino boards for several months, has hatched plans for ambitious art projects drawing on the potential of the equipment. Specifically, he'd like to program light displays to create a LED version of a mandala, or a graphic representation of the universe.

"I like that you can turn on and turn off something with the press of a button, and make one button make a pattern. You can turn on a series of lights with another series," Schyler said. "Programming has been a large aspect of my life, because it's everything that we do nowadays. You need the programming to understand the computer you're using, and we have to be smarter than the machines."

The combination of STEM, arts and real-world skills is one of the major draws of teaching with the Arduino boards. It's a fusion of disciplines that's made Mazingo plan for future projects and incoming classes of students; she's planning on purchasing additional kits for the class, and challenging the students with more complex and demanding projects.

"I foresee us being able to start off the school year with the basics of the equipment and moving on through the rest of the year," she said, noting that she'll be able to incorporate the Arduino boards into existing curriculum.

That approach will be inestimably valuable for students like Vargas, who haven't had exposure to these kinds of projects. The hands-on, approachable dynamic of the equipment has turned theory into practice for several students who had previously taken backseat roles, Mazingo said, and that's made the Arduino boards well worth the cost.

"With the larger design projects, sometimes they'd just take a backseat and watch. Now, they're in there with their own hands and their own board. They're coding every single project," Mazingo said. "It's been something new, but I don't think it's going to wear off. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what can be done with knowledge of computer programming and circuitry."