Midwest Tour and Win a Free RedBoard!

Where in SparkFun employees do flips in order to illustrate "if" statements and explain alternative electricity analogies.

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As you most likely know, SparkFun has been traveling around the U.S. doing all sorts of workshops. The most recent leg of the tour found our team doing everything from Scratch and Pico at a bunch of libraries to professional development at the Thomas Metcalf Laboratory at Illinois State University.

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SparkFun at the Thomas Metcalf Laboratory, ISU

Today, I'm going to highlight some of the different analogies/activities we used on the tour. In addition, you can win some stuff! We're inviting you to submit analogies you have used to teach or explain electronics. The top 20 analogies (as chosen by our Department of Education), will receive a free SparkFun RedBoard.

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Read more about SparkFun's trip to the Midwest and the contest on the Learn blog.

Comments 57 comments

  • Ichbinjoe / about 11 years ago / 10

    The website! My eyes!

    • I am seriously liking the minimalist style, and the red is still present in the rollover menus.

    • LC / about 11 years ago / 1

      Hi Joeisi, as our head of IT often reminds us- Websites are never finished, they are always a work in progress. Personally I like the lack of gray and increased simplicity, but as one of our customers your feedback is always welcomed and encouraged. Any specific responses about aesthetics will always be seen and noted. Can you provide more concrete information for us?

      • SlyVixsky / about 11 years ago / 4

        I like the new format, and the lack of gray, but its missing the red we all love!

        • Mr. Patrick / about 11 years ago / 1

          Oh, change hurts! I miss the red, too!

        • I'll see about getting some more red back for you, but be forewarned I'm a deuteranope :) It's definitely a work in progress, and we're welcome to any and all feedback!

      • Member #317608 / about 11 years ago / 1

        When the window is skinny (namely on my iPad), the sparkfun logo gets pushed directly up against the side of the window, which looks bad and unbalanced. I would suggest a 5-10px left margin on the header so the logo is slightly spaced out.

      • andy4us / about 11 years ago / 1

        The look reminds me of a lot of the wordpress themes I looked at, which is next to no primaries and shades, although they're normally blues and grey based. Do miss the red top banner, that has been a Sparkfun tradition.

        If you really want o improve the site, face facts and ditch the LHS menu system. When I first came to Sparkfun to buy Olimex boards 7 or 8 years ago, I could use it to navigate to what I want. Now, I just use search. Too many items, and not always where you think they might go.

        • Not everyone who uses the site is looking for something in particular. The menu is a browsing system. Before I worked here, I browsed a lot more than I searched.

          So just keep in mind that not everyone uses the site in the same way. For instance, the banner had notoriously low click-rates. People might have liked to look at them, but they sure didn't like clicking them.

      • Ichbinjoe / about 11 years ago / 1

        No I like it. It brings that modern feel to the website. Its just very bright. I think a bit of color would make it feel more welcoming.

      • Earlz / about 11 years ago / 1

        I personally like the new website, but WOW is it different. Also, I would not have expected it to have been updated with all the flooding and such going on

        • Erik-Sparkfun / about 11 years ago / 1

          To be fair, this had been on a branch for a while and would probably have rolled Thursday or Friday if it wasn't for the flooding. Now that most of us are back in the building, it's business (mostly) as usual.

  • GeneralPHY / about 11 years ago / 7

    Computer Engineering is the bisexual version of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science - it goes both ways

  • Member #470401 / about 11 years ago * / 5

    ELI the ICE man

    ELI the ICE man is a simple way to remember whether voltage (E) leads or lags current ( C ) in a reactive circuit. ELI means voltage (E) leads current (I) in an inductive (L) circuit and current (I) leads voltage (E) in a capacitive ( C ) circuit.

  • GCF / about 11 years ago / 2

    I taught high school physics, so teaching why resistors and capacitors do what they do and why they do it always came down to analogies. The students always enjoyed relating a parallel plate capacitor to a junior high dance floor. All the girls (positive charges since girls are cheery) and boys (negative charges, obviously), line up on opposite sides of the dance floor. However, they never actually cross the dance floor, since they are in junior high and are afraid of each other. If you make the dance floor wider, then more boys and girls can line up, which gives you more capacity for the kids - this is an increase in capacitance. On the other hand, if you make the dance floor really wide, the boys and girls are less interested in each other and don't want to line up anymore - this is a decrease in capacitance.

    This explains the general equation that C=(epsilon)A/d. The width of the dance floor is the area of the capacitor. As the area increases, the capacitance increases. The distance between the boys and girls is like the distance between the plates of a capacitor. As the distance increases, the capacitance decreases.

    If you want to get really crazy, you can explain that the permittivity of the material or dielectric (epsilon) is similar to whether that are obstacles that block the view of the girls and boys on the dance floor. The less their vision is permitted, the lower the epsilon value, and the lower the capacitance. The higher the permittivity, the higher the capacitance.

  • Raighteye / about 11 years ago / 2

    my science teacher always explained the movement of electricity with trolls. Al trolls have a little bit of electric energy, and there job is to deliver that energy.

    Voltage: U

    The amount of trolls that run by every second.

    Amps: I

    The amount of energy that the trolls are carrying at one time.

    Resistance: ohm

    LARGE diameter thread is when the trolls can walk next to each other on that road, the wider the road is the more trolls can walk next to each other. They can deliver more energy at a time. (low resistance) SMALL diameter thread is when trolls are on a small road and they have to walk behind each other. they have to deliver the energy one by one. (high resistance)

    SOFT sandy roads are slower because its harder to run on (high resistance/ by material) HARD roads are fast, because you can run on them faster (low resistance/ by material)

    if there are to many trolls on a high resistance road, then they will start to fight each other, and things will heat up. it could even be so that they crash in to each other and damage the road.


    resistors are road narrows to make sure that the trolls won't fight each other and cause crashes. or to make sure that they don't deliver to much energy at one time.

    you can explain almost everything electric with trolls XD jolts (trolls jumping over a ravine) path of least resistance (they race each other and when one finds the fastest route they al take that route)

    trolls are my go to explanation because its real easy to Imagine trolls doing that kind of stuff.

  • LC / about 11 years ago / 2

    Hello again, as Chelsea the Destroyer pointed out to me we didn't specify where you have to leave your analogy or activity so I'll be looking at all comments, Sparkfun and Learn. Thanks for all the input guys!

  • OldFar-SeeingArt / about 11 years ago / 2

    Solder is the best programming language.

  • LC / about 11 years ago / 2

    These are great guys! If you put them on learn.sparkfun.com's blog then you may win a free redboard!

  • Pistachio / about 11 years ago / 2

    Voltage is comparable to the force behind water in a pipe to push it through, and current is comparable to the amount of water actually flowing through the pipe.

    • John Price / about 11 years ago / 1

      I always used the water analogy. - Resistors are pieces of skinny pipe. - Inductors are long lengths of pipe, it takes a bit to get the water flowing, once the water is flowing it has momentum and doesn't want to stop (which is why you have water hammer arresters in your plumbing). - Capacitors are tubs or tanks with a membrane in them (like the one that protects your water heater from over pressure). You can push water through, but as the membrane stretches it gets harder until none flows. Release the pressure and it flows back out because of the membrane. - Diodes are check valves, water only flows one way. - Transistors are just water activated valves, a small amount of water will turn the handle allowing a large amount to flow.

  • Thetinkerer / about 11 years ago / 1

    Creating programs with open sourced and non open sourced programming programming language classes and objects can best be described as baking a cake. If all the ingredients are open sourced and you can easily get them to use in your program cake, you can bake the best cake ever with those ingredients free of charge and in a short time frame. However, if people patent or charge for their sugar or flour, you have to either pay a great deal of money to get your cake, or grow and refine the sugar, grow grains to make your own flower, milk your own cows, and keep your own chickens, and you might get a cake eventually but it will take so much time and effort that you probably won't get get a program cake at all, let alone one that tastes good...

  • JAVASka / about 11 years ago / 1

    My first electronics teacher once told me (when working with current dividers): "The current is not stupid or masochistic, it goes down the path of least resistance".

  • James Matthew / about 11 years ago / 1

    The new site looks good. But is part of the "m" in the sparkfun.com logo cut off, or is it supposed to look like that?

  • Dan P. / about 11 years ago / 1

    FYI, can we just have an option to change the background color to #900? The rest of the page is in containers so just changing the background-color of the body tag is all that's needed. It really makes viewing the site much easier on the eyes. I'm a huge fan of minimalism but its just too much white.

  • WarpedHumor / about 11 years ago / 1

    my favorite is that all electronics opperate on magic smoke -- touch the probe in the wrong place and the magic smoke comes out and your circuit no longer works. Think about it...


  • LC / about 11 years ago / 1

    Thanks for all the input guys! I'll be compiling these and the comments on learn in order to give 20 of you a free redboard. Please be patient, I will be in touch with the winners.

  • The red should be brought back, you guys!

  • BB / about 11 years ago * / 1

    A diode acts like a toilet. The water in the toilet bowl doesn't go down the pipes because the height of the water hasn't reached its "threshold voltage" (if water height were voltage). The toilet only flushes (the current only flows) when the water level (the "voltage") is raised high enough to allow it, and down goes the current!

    One failure of this analogy is that the toilet does not block current going the other way. :O

  • Passive filters: In a high pass filter, the capacitor takes the "high road" In a low pass filter, the capacitor takes the "low road"

  • IC Packages: IC chips n DIP is awesome Soldering SOICs will make you stoic (unless you've watched SFE soldering tutorials)

  • Current, Voltage, Resistance, Inductance, and Capacitance

    Electrons are like cars, traveling along a road called a conductor. The road starts at a car dealership and ends at a recycling center. Good roads/conductors have many lanes to travel on. Each car/electron perfectly tailgates the electron in front of them, and there is no extra space on each lane of the road. Current is the rate at which cars pass a given mile-marker with respect to time. Because every electron/car is tailgating the next, all electrons move at the same speed, at the same time (unless in a dealership). The quality of the road (ice, dirt, gravel, pavement) will determine how easy it is for cars to drive on it, and is called resistance. Voltage is the difference between the number of cars at the dealership and the number of cars at the recycling center. If there are more cars at the dealership than there are at the recycling center, cars will drive from the dealership, through your circuit (hopefully) and into the recycling center. If there's a short (a direct connection between the dealership and the recycling center), the new cars at the dealership will drive right into the car smasher! The ratio of voltage to resistance determines the current on the road. If there are tons of Batmobiles and F350s on the lot and the Recycling center is empty, there's gonna be a current! Lots of cars to sell means more current. Terrible roads means less current. The speed of the electrons is determined by the wind speed and direction near the road. Wind conditions are called inductance. The current of the cars will generate its own wind force called flux, which will allow the cars to speed up, since the wind will travel in the same direction. If the resistance of the road increases or the voltage decreases, the moving air/flux will help propel the cars forward, resisting a change in current. Lastly, there are multiple car dealership-middle-men along the way to the recycling center. Cars sold at the main dealership are sold, drive, and then traded in and bought from the mini dealerships along the way until reaching the recycling center. Each mini dealership has an input and an output, and can hold a few cars (not as many as the main dealership). If the voltage of the main dealership changes and as a result, sells more cars, the mini dealerships have to buy those cars before they can sell more as well. This delay to change in voltage is called capacitance.

  • RadioDoctor / about 11 years ago / 1

    Steve Ciarcia of Byte Magazine fame once wrote (some 30 years ago): The best programming is done in solder.

    A very central quote. If the HW is flaky - the SW will fall off of it!

  • Thetinkerer / about 11 years ago / 1

    Electricity is like a trained circus lion. You can train it to do amazing things but it is always still a wild animal and could really hurt you if you aren't careful or don't have much experience.

  • Kash / about 11 years ago / 1

    Think of the electronics on a board as a factory, in which each component has a vital roll to play. As in any factory there needs to be a proper flow of information to get a task done. In the case of the components on the board they need to communicate properly for the program to be executed.

  • Edwilson1989 / about 11 years ago / 1

    I was asked once to explain the function of basic electronic components in a way that someone without any knowledge of engineering or maths would understand. The hydraulic analogy is good but requires understanding of pressures.

    I went with Traffic to explain it. Diodes are one way streets, Transistors are traffic lights, Resistors are traffic calming measures (You'll have to be in the UK to understand that one). At a more detailed level the cars can represent charge (current) with the number of people in each car being the energy (volts).

    This worked well for me. I understand that under great scrutiny it collapse for the explanation of basic principles it is sound.

  • K Watts / about 11 years ago / 1

    My brother-in-law is a mechanic so when we talk electronics I try to put things in automotive terms. A few examples: decoupling capacitors on a power supply are like shocks that smooth out a rough "voltage road". A diode after a solar panel prevents electrons from flowing in the wrong direction, just like the check valve between the fuel tank and the engine.

  • restifo / about 11 years ago / 1

    My dad, who was an EW in the Navy, taught me the conceptual idea of how a transistor works as a switch using a fork, a knife, and a spoon. Obtain a fork, knife and spoon. Make the knife the collector. Make the base the spoon. Make the fork the emitter. Lay them out just like a transistor symbol but don't connect them.

    When no voltage is applied, current can't "jump" from the knife to the fork. When you apply a voltage, you "nudge" the spoon in....current can now jump from the knife (collector) to fork (emitter). This is obviously for NPN. Remove the voltage, pull away the spoon. It also helps you remember whether you need a high or low voltage. You can reverse the concept and "pull" the spoon for a PNP. Think "nudge" ("n") for NPN and "pull" ("p") for PNP.

    I've found it an easy way to abstractly think about a transistor before learning about PN junctions/holes/electrons and such.

  • Ford Anglia / about 11 years ago / 1

    Electricity flows in conductors much as water flows in pipes. A capacitor is a bucket, that can fill with water (electric charge). The bigger the bucket (capacitance) the bigger the charge stored. Capacitors are not perfect and leak charge, much like a bucket with a small hole in the bottom. Polarized capacitors can only be charged one way, similarly, a bucket can only be filled through the open top; putting the bucket upside down is similar to putting a polarized capacitor backwards in the electrical circuit.

  • Member #353500 / about 11 years ago / 1

    Think simple. Simplicity is beauty.

  • BeerCannon / about 11 years ago / 1

    I always remember a low-pass versus high-pass filter by looking at the placement of the capacitor. If the cap is closer to ground than the resistor, (i.e. "lower".. both in potential and by it's normal placement on a schematic), then its a low-pass filter. If the cap is closer to Vcc than the resistor, (i.e. "higher"), then it's a high-pass filter. So, the position of the capacitor tells us the type of filter.

    As an aside, I caught the SparkFun tour this past Sunday at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. My kids had a great time using Scratch and PicoBoard, and your staff (Jeff, Dave, and I missed the young lady's name, but she works in your tech support department) were outstanding.

  • Blueblast88 / about 11 years ago / 1

    Never leave a pin not connected (even if it's not connected internally to the IC) connect it to ground. Thats like if I told you to do pushups without using one arm.

  • TheKitty / about 11 years ago / 1

    A diode is like a water valve that allows liquid to flow in one direction but prevents it from flowing back the other direction. Much like one that may be found on a sewage system to allow sewage to leave a building but not for sewage to back up from the sewer back into the building (ewww!).

  • TheKitty / about 11 years ago / 1

    The current output of a transistor (from collector to emitter) given a base current can be thought of as a little man inside watching the small base current and turning a knob to allow a collector to emitter current propotional (and larger than) the change in the base current.

  • TheKitty / about 11 years ago / 1

    As DC current goes through an inductance like a motor or other coiled wire, it builds up magnetic flux, a form of potential energy, which will collapse the opposite way when the DC current is removed. The analogy is lifting a weight creates the potential energybetween the ground and the weight which, when you release your hand, causes the weight to drop back to the floor. To ensure this stored energy does not hurt your electronics in undesirable ways, adding a diode across the coil, allowing the collapsing flux energy to go back to the coil and not your electronics, is controlling the fall of the weight, rather than it going in a crazy direction like landing on your foot (ouch!).

  • quidproquo / about 11 years ago / 1

    Not so much an analogy, but a good thing to remember is "Whatever you can do with software, you can do with hardware."

    • sgrace / about 11 years ago / 2

      My motto is, "Whatever you can do in software, you can do in hardware FASTER!"

    • LC / about 11 years ago / 1

      Thanks quidproquo! You never know, depending on how many responses we get you might win a redboard. But bear in mind that you have to comment on learn.sparkfun.com instead of sparkfun.com in order to be considered for free hardware. Thanks!

  • Member #341578 / about 11 years ago / 1

    I'm glad you guys got to go to the laboratory school at ISU. I'm an ISU alum and I used to walk past the lab school every day on my way to class. Keep up the good work.

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