Dr. Benjamin Finio is a mechanical engineer, STEM educator, and lecturer in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University. He uses Tinkercad in MAE 3780: Mechatronics, a junior-level mechanical engineering course that is a mix of a traditional intro circuits course (resistor networks, RC filters, op amps, transistors, etc) and Arduino/robotics. In recognition of Tinkercad's 10 year anniversary, we asked him to share how he started teaching with Tinkercad and catch us up on what he's up to today.
How It Started
We originally piloted the use of Tinkercad in fall 2019, when I had students bring laptops to class so we could use it for in-class activities to learn Arduino programming. This was much more feasible than trying to have every student cram a laptop and Arduino and breadboard onto tiny lecture hall desks.
For the fall 2020 semester, the class was fully online, but luckily we were able to distribute physical Arduino/circuit kits to the students for use at home. However, we found that the students and TAs had a lot of trouble debugging circuits over Zoom.
It's much too hard to see what's going on on a breadboad over a webcam, especially with low video resolution and poor lighting in many situations. So we started asking students to rebuild their circuits in Tinkercad and share their screens in Zoom, which made it much easier to see what was going on and help them debug.
Professor Hadas Kress-Gazit taught the fall 2020 class, and I was in a supporting role developing course materials and instructional videos. My position was funded by the Active Learning Initiative by the Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation, to get students doing more activities during lecture, instead of just passively watching the instructor do everything.
You can see some of our students' final project videos. All of the projects were prototyped in Tinkercad so TAs could review the students' preliminary circuit plans.
How It's Going
This fall (ideally in person) I plan to return to the 2019 approach. We will use Tinkercad for the intro to Arduino programming in lecture. Then we will switch over to programming the physical Arduino in lab, where we have more space and it's easier for the students to work with real hardware.
I also used Tinkercad for an introductory Arduino workshop for the Cornell University Library’s mannUfactory makerspace twice this year. This workshop would normally run in-person, but the makerspace was forced to shut down all in person classes because of COVID. So Tinkercad allowed us to continue the class online. You can see a recording of my most recent class with Camille Andrews, the director of the makerspace where I did the circuits workshop, here.
We are also planning to use Tinkercad for Cornell's virtual "Bring a Child to Work Day" events in April. This will be similar to the mannUfactory makerspace event.
Why do you think Tinkercad is still going strong after 10 years?
I think Tinkercad has been so successful because it's taking software that was traditionally only accessible to professional engineers — first CAD programs and now circuit simulators — and making them accessible to everyone.
If you look at a professional CAD program like Autodesk Inventor, it's very powerful but the interface is pretty intimidating for a beginner. Tinkercad's 3D modeling program has a very brightly colored, intuitive, beginner-friendly user interface.
Getting started with Arduino in Tinkercad Circuits
The same goes for Tinkercad Circuits. There are a bunch of circuit simulators out there, but they all work in "schematic" mode, which uses a bunch of weird symbols to represent circuit parts that most people won't recognize. Tinkercad Circuits lets you tinker as if you were using a physical breadboard, LEDs, etc, which is much more accessible for beginners. You don't need an engineering degree to get started with this stuff, so Tinkercad really helps lower that barrier to entry.