By Pranjal Pokharel
Event Coverage Head of The Zerone 2020
Photos by: LOCUS Photography

Ten boys, sporting ‘engineering beards’, are eagerly waiting for their turn to pour some tea for themselves along the corridor of the Electrical, Electronics and Computer Department. Their teeth clatter and bodies shake in response to the cold evenings of December. The night has already begun and one can hear murmurs about whether they’d get a ride back home at this late hour. Yet, they are not ready to leave. Something special is going on inside lecture room two; the bright light of the projector displaying some sophisticated Arduino code, the sound of the instructor teaching the pin layout of Motor Driver IC L293D placed on each table, and the faces of excited students eager to connect the jumper wires on their breadboards.

A lively morning at the Hardware Fellowship 2020 with Instructor Sangam Man Buddhacharya

The Hardware Fellowship 2020 is not a new addition to the long list of innovative programs organized by LOCUS every year. In fact, it is one of the oldest – initially conducted by Robotics Club, Pulchowk Campus, before being jointly organized by LOCUS and Robotics Club as a single, focused team. The fellowship program is mainly oriented towards the first year students who haven’t had a chance to work on hardware projects during their high-school life, with the syllabus designed to educate them with the minimum knowledge required to kick-start their own electronic projects.

“We don’t expect the participants of this fellowship to come up with a LOCUS-ready project immediately. The main objective of this fellowship is to get their foundations right – the basic tools you need to have before starting any project, the research you need to put in, prototyping and simulation, soldering and so on”, Sangam Man Buddhacharya, the Hardware Coordinator of LOCUS 2020 Committee says, "I, being an event coordinator, cannot meet each student personally and provide personalized guidance on their projects. So, another benefit of this event is that it introduces them to seniors and other experts who can help them work on their projects in the future.”

He then goes on to describe the one major thing that makes the fellowship this year efficient and a major upgrade on the previous ones – the syllabus. Clear, concise, and easy to follow along. The first day starts with an orientation about simple circuit elements such as resistors and LEDs, with the participants being gradually introduced to breadboards, ICs, microcontrollers (Arduino) and circuit simulating software such as Proteus. By the end of the 10-day fellowship, students are expected to learn about creating complicated PCB design using KiCad and get acquainted with communication protocols, an example project being controlling an Arduino board using Bluetooth Module and the participant’s mobile phone. A new session included this year was a motivational/experience -sharing session on day 9, in which seniors and instructors shared invaluable information on their past LOCUS projects, the process behind team formation, deadline-day problems they had to face and ideas on practical implementation of their projects. In his words, the hardware fellowship is more pragmatic than ever.

Apeksha Ghimire, one of the participants of the fellowship program and a first year Electical Engineering student at Pulchowk, says, “The learning curve is not so steep, but I did have some difficulties in understanding the basic concepts when we started programming in Arduino. Later, I realized that I wasn’t self-studying at home, which made Arduino programming seem complex for someone like me who didn’t have a prior experience in programming. After I did some homework of my own, I immediately understood the magic behind microcontrollers.”

This essentially means that the fellowship program doesn’t spoon-feed its participants. The program encourages the students to try something on their own at home once the classes for the day are over. About 30 students are assigned, per class, in groups of five or six. Each group is provided with their own box of kits – resistors, LEDs, ultrasonic sensors, breadboard, Arduino Uno and other indispensable electronic items. The syllabus states itself: a minimum of 1 hour practice session every day, in which the participants work in their groups, some connecting the circuit while some typing lines of code in the programming section. 4-5 additional instructors move around the room, providing general guidelines and debugging tips, but at the end of the day, it is the participants who are the focal points of the session - tinkering with their circuits, trying to come up with new ways to improve their pet projects.

Instructor to the rescue!

About the contribution of Robotics Club in the success of the event, Pawan Paudel, third-year Electronics Engineering student and a prominent member of the club, says, “Robotics Club and LOCUS go hand in hand – they are not disjoint sets as an outside eye might think. Not all but most of the instructors of the hardware fellowship are also involved in the activities of the club. As such, we have helped design the syllabus and contributed to encourage engineering students from outside the campus to enroll in the fellowship as well.” He continues, “While LOCUS is a once-a-year event, students, who have completed the program, are encouraged to join the Robotics Club which is open 24 hours a day, throughout the year. Enthusiastic students who have aspirations to participate in the ABU Robocon and are prepared to have sleepless nights over their hardware projects are more than welcome to join our team.”

More than 200 students applied for the hardware fellowship this year, with about 50 students being from engineering colleges other than Pulchowk. To account for the huge number of students, the fellowship is conducted in two shifts: 7-9 in the morning and 4-6 in the evening. While initially expecting no more than 100-120 students, Anmol Paudel, the Research Coordinator of LOCUS 2020, recalls an interesting situation: “Since around only 80 students had filled up the form, we were almost overwhelmed by the sheer volume of participants that showed up on the first day. While we managed to conduct the event smoothly that day, another glaring problem showed up – we didn’t have enough projectors. There were only 4 projectors in the department and there was no way we could deprive the students of one. So we bought one, against all odds, at 7 in the evening. All thanks to our dedicated team, who didn’t mind the chilling weather and bike rides in the dark to procure a projector on time.”

To encourage students with financial difficulty to apply, the LOCUS team has struck a partnership with Khalti, a digital wallet for instant, secure and hassle-free online payments in Nepal, to provide 15% cashback on the enrollment fee of the fellowship. Sangam Man Buddhacharya comments, “Our partnership with Khalti is a plus point we didn’t have last year. Also, starting this year, we are planning to introduce the concept of LOCUS Mentors – at least one senior or expert assigned to each first-year students’ LOCUS Project teams in order to supervise and assist them throughout the development of their hardware projects. In a way, by getting the students to start working on their projects two months in advance, the hardware fellowship aims to increase the quality of LOCUS projects and the contribution of the freshers in making the event highly efficient and inclusive.”

An instructor shows a group of students how the problem with their motor is not the wire connections but some faulty code. He explains how 0.1V is not sufficient to start the motor and, after making adequate changes to the code, demonstrates how the motor can reverse its direction when the ultrasonic sensor attached to it senses an impending obstacle. Self-driving cars, he says, and the students nod in amazement at the brilliance of their instructor. A teacup exhales warm vapor at the end of the table and a hardware fellowship poster outside the door sparkles under the exposure of sun – hardware fellowship, the intelligent circuitry connecting the dots in LOCUS 2020.

Hard Work and Perseverance Rewarded!

A part of this article will also appear in the print version of the Zerone Magazine, to be released during the LOCUS Exhibition.

Click on the 'LOCUS Events' tag at the top of this article to read more articles like this.