ECE ILLINOIS staff, student organizations host soldering workshops

5/5/2014 Meg Dickinson, ECE ILLINOIS

Several ECE ILLINOIS student organizations recently worked with staff member Skot Wiedmann to host two workshops on soldering.

Written by Meg Dickinson, ECE ILLINOIS

After 10 seconds of applying hot air to soldering paste, it still looks dull, and doesn’t seem to be doing much. But then suddenly, it happens - the solder melts in a silvery glow.

It transforms chips and a circuit board into a synthesizer that makes music.

“Sort of all at once, it’s just this magical thing,” said Skot P Wiedmann, who recently taught two soldering workshops for ECE ILLINOIS students and others. Wiedmann works in the ECE ILLINOIS Electronics Service Shop, but also has a master’s degree in the fine art of new media.

Skot P Wiedmann
Skot P Wiedmann
The workshops turned into an outreach effort, one Wiedmann publicized during Engineering Open House earlier this spring. ECE ILLINOIS’ student branch of IEEE sponsored both soldering workshops, and about 90 people total attended. Everyone who did was able to successfully solder the synthesizer, Wiedmann said.

Texas Instruments sponsored the workshop by providing many of the chips required. Participants also paid a fee to cover the rest of the materials.

The workshop had participants soldering to make the Hyve, a hybrid-octave synthesizer designed by Wiedmann that features a multi-touch keyboard and hexagons that play chords (which helped him name it, because they look like honeycombs).

For those unfamiliar with electronics, the HYVE Synthesizer Workshop helped demonstrate hot-air soldering, and how easily it can be done. Wiedmann applied soldering paste using a stencil to each circuit board, which helped ensure even and precise application. Students then used an instrument called a hot-air reflow to heat the soldering paste from an unexciting before to a melted and useful after.

For students who’ve tried hand soldering, Wiedmann said the workshop showed how almost all consumer electronics are made. Machines apply the paste and then the chips to be soldered, and then the whole assembly is heated in an oven.

“It’s good for students to be exposed to that,” he said.

But he thinks the workshop was especially successful because they weren’t just there to learn a new skill. They were also making something fun and useful, he said.

“You inspire people to learn when you have a goal that’s inspiring,” Wiedmann said.

Wiedmann said he knows of one high-school student who attended who’s now thinking about attending Illinois after attending the workshop. He also enjoyed helping other departments’ faculty members, and designed the boards to be soldered in a clear way that wouldn’t be too confusing to newcomers.

“We had a great time,” he said.

Niranjana Sreekumar, a senior who is a member of IEEE, said the workshop also helped attendees learn about arranging parts and reading part numbers, circuit analysis, and testing.

“The best parts were interacting with the attendees while distributing parts and helping solve issues with their boards during testing,” she said.

Emily McGowan, a senior and a member of WECE, said her organization’s involvement came from a desire to educate everyone about electrical engineering.

“It was a great project and it helps promote our department in a positive way,” she said.

At one workshop, she met a high school junior who, with her father, had driven two hours to attend. The student is considering Illinois.

“That blew my mind,” McGowan said. “Now, she knows that WECE is out there to support her if she chooses to come to this school. … Women do have a place to come and get the support they want or need in this male-dominated field. This was a project that gave us the opportunity to reach those women and show prospective students how great electrical engineering is.”

McGowan also liked that the technique Wiedmann demonstrated is widely used in industry, but isn’t necessarily well known by individuals.

 “This was an excellent way to teach people about things they don't always think about,” she said. “On top of that, I loved that it showed that [ECE] has projects like this that are interesting to people outside of electrical engineering. We often get caught up in the industry stuff that the community doesn't really see, and this was an excellent opportunity to show that we can create consumer products, too.”

McGowan said she also believes those who attended felt proud about making a synthesizer that worked.

“You could see how proud they were and how cool they thought it was when they plugged their headphones in and heard the notes playing,” McGowan said. “So many people stayed after to finish or just to talk with Skot. It really showed how interested everyone was not only in taking away a musical instrument but learning more about the process and how everything works.”

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This story was published May 5, 2014.