Electronic Design
Have Chip Vendors Taken Over Where Heathkit Left Off? (Courtesy of Texas Instruments)

Have Chip Vendors Taken Over Where Heathkit Left Off?

Texas Instruments’ TI-Innovator Hub targets the classroom and STEM education with its new LaunchPad Board.

(Image courtesy of Texas Instruments)

Long ago, Heathkit provided hordes of hackers and budding engineers with educational platforms that often turned out to be useful devices like amplifiers, radio receivers and oscilloscopes. It also had kits that were more STEM-oriented, although the term was “educational” at the time. Heathkit is no more (actually that is incorrect, heathkit.com exists although the collection of hardware is a far cry from its heyday and a bit eclectic), having wandering into the PC and robotics market for a time.

There have been many companies that have taken the place of Heathkit, ranging from Parallax (see “Multicore Propeller ‘Flys’ Quadcopter” on electronicdesign.com) to SparkFun (see “The Rise And Fall Of Heathkit—And Rise of SparkFun” on electronicdesign.com). The rise of the low-cost microcontroller has turned expensive development kits into inexpensive platforms like the BBC’s micro:bits that are going to millions of students to build the next big thing in the Internet of Things (IoT).

That brings us to Texas Instruments’ (TI) latest offering, the TI-Innovator Hub (Fig. 1). It targets the classroom and STEM education with its new MSP-EXP432P401-ET TI LaunchPad Board. The module exposes three input and three output ports along with a pair of micro-USB ports for power and programming. There is also an I2Cport and a 20-pin header for the optional Breadboard Pack.

1. The TI-Innovator Hub packages a 32-bit, Cortex-M4F TI microcontroller into a compact box that can tie into a TI calculator.

The TI-Innovator Hub lacks wireless support, but there are add-on modules like the Ultrasonic Ranger Module and the I/O Module Pack add features for servo motor control and sensors. A wireless module will be in the mix eventually.

Programming can be done using a TI-84 Plus graphing calculator using TI-Basic. Lua is another alternative that works with the TI-Nspire CX platform. More ambitious programmers can utilize the Code Composer Studio (CCS) that is normally used with TI’s LaunchPad products, of which there are many already available. This platform is really targeted at the new student though, compared to the TI BeagleBone that targets experienced developers and those in the maker space. The tie-in to TI’s calculator business makes sense since it is well established with a plethora of packages that already address areas like the sciences, from physics to biology.

A recent offering from Silicon Labs is its Thunderboard React Derby Car Kit (Fig. 2). The tiny Thunderboad React module is in the same class as the micro:bits. It is a wireless module designed for new users that can be programmed for interesting things like tracking the speed of the model car. It does this courtesy of a Hall effect sensor on the board and a magnet mounted on one of the wheels.

2. Silicon Labs’ Thunderboard React Derby Car Kit includes a tiny module with Bluetooth Low Energy support and a Hall effect sensor that can be used to track the speed of the car using a magnet mounted on one of the wheels.

Maker platforms like Raspberry Pi and Arduino have built a massive base of users, but it is a small fraction of the number of students that could make use of these STEM-oriented platforms. The level of success will depend upon the community that can be developed and the amount of support that is provided from the vendors. 

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