The resources to support a subject like physics simply do not exist in America’s already sluggish education system. According to the U.S. Department of education, 40% of high schools do not even offer the subject. This lack of access is somewhat caused by the financial barrier even smaller electrical engineering projects can present. A basic setup including an Arduino to control a single LED comes out to about $45. This pushes an already daunting subject even further away from students’ grasp.
After a very long ideation session, we set out to make electrical engineering— a subject we all love so much—a little more accessible and affordable to students around the country. We decided to do this using the flashy ed-tech route, but still made sure to retain the tactile aspects that define EE.
What it does and how we built it
First, the user draws a circuit schematic they wish to analyze using custom tactile shapes we laser-cut to represent their circuit. For example, using a rectangle (battery) and a circle (LED), they can power a light! The user then takes a picture of their circuit using our Swift developed iOS app which is then sent to an Python / Flask backend to be decomposed into different circuit components, all connected by wires. Through OpenCV, the shapes in the circuit are identified and translated into their corresponding circuit components: voltage source, LED, resistor, or potentiometer. These circuit components are then analyzed to determine the circuit’s output (we determined output by whether or not the LED was turned on). The resulting pattern of electronic components was then sent back to the iOS app. Based on the locations of the components in the originally drawn circuit, an Augmented Reality experience is dynamically created using Apple’s ARKit. The AR visualization illustrates how a student’s idea of a circuit would function in real life, providing far more detail and avenues for creativity than a traditional circuit in a textbook or classroom lecture. In addition, students who have the privilege of working with physical hardware might shy away from experimenting for fear of burning out electronic components. With CirCreate, experimentation is a given - we expect that students will learn far more from visualizing mistakes when the stakes are zero.
Challenges we ran into and what we learned
Although learning so many new skills in a weekend was difficult, we wanted not only a technical challenge but also an ethical one. We deeply believe that our hack should in some way contribute to making the world a better tomorrow and wanted to preserve the integrity of education with its technological interpretation. Due to the depth we desired to provide an enriching experience for students and our novice technical level in these fields, we weren’t able to fully develop our project over the course of this hackathon, but we hope to continue learning and working in the future. A technical challenge we ran into was the lack of documentation in ARKit (RealityKit), Swift, and Reality Converter. It’s very cool to be at the cutting edge of all these brand new technologies but also creates a large barrier to entry without vast resources. Along those lines, the 3-D file formats necessary were also not available anywhere.
What we're proud of
Our idea for CirCreate stemmed from a deep passion for educational equity and our love (albeit nerdy) for circuitry. We additionally had never worked with Augmented Reality or iOS app development before and wanted to learn those two new skills this weekend. We combined this all to produce a deliverable which converted a 2-D hand-drawn circuit on a sheet of paper to a 3-D Augmented Reality experience with a fully functioning circuit resembling actual circuit components like Arduinos and resistors. We felt it was important to bridge the gap between very theoretical circuit pedagogy with the excitement of actually developing the little gadgets and gizmos. Through our varied experiences learning the subject, we also were aware of how unintuitive theoretical drawings can be and strove to craft a tactile and immersive learning experience.
What's next for CirCreate
We hope AR will be mindfully and impactfully used in the physics classroom and beyond in the future— tipping the scales in favor of greater educational accessibility and hence educational equity. The applications for our hack are endless— from providing useful debugging and rapid prototyping for seasoned circuiteers to a fun, comfortable entry into the field for eager learners.