Delivering BTEC National, Level 3 Engineering – microcontroller systems (unit 6)

Note: this article was originally published in April 2016 and has been re-written in March 2018.

As part of the new BTEC level 3 (RQF) in Engineering extended diploma, released in 2016, all students are required to deliver a new compulsory unit on microcontroller systems (unit 6). This is  for all Electrical/Electronic, Mechanical, Computing, Manufacturing and Aeronautical students. The first assessment is upon us now and colleges and training providers will be emabrking upon this later in April and into May.

This unit presents a challenge for many lecturers/department leaders as microcontrollers are a completely new area of focus for them them. Even more experienced programmers have found the new unit 6 to be a tough one – not necessarily because of their own understanding, but because of students’ limited understanding of microcontroller systems prior to study at this level. The table below show the specific unit in question.

1

The second table (below), is taken directly from the specification set-out by BTEC for unit 6 (page 105). This clearly stipulates that colleges can only use specified hardware, software and programming languages to deliver the unit. Amongst these is Flowcode and, which can be selected when the centre chooses the Arduino/Genuino or PIC hardware route.

Many centres will choose either the Arduino or PIC route to follow, as the others present either a difficult introduction to MCU’s, particularly for those new to this area of study. Whilst other options for this unit are not particularly seen and recognised as industry standards and therefore could be frowned upon by centre partners in industry.

2Source: Pearson, BTEC National Level 3 in Engineering, unit 6 specification March 2018

Back in 2016, we delivered seminars across the UK. At that time, there was a feeling that many centres will be tempted to wait until later dates to introduce the necessary changes and move from the old specification (2010) to the new one. However as time goes by, we’re seeing many more centres moving to the new spec, due to the league table effects for centres, and the impact upon post-19 funding as per the DfE decision published on 21/04/2016 (navigate to page 19 onwards).

One of the seminars we delivered back in 2016, was at our HQ in Halifax, West Yorkshire. The video below shows the seminar presentation, delivered in more detail. We had more than 10 colleges from the North of England at this seminar which was great and ran these in Birmingham and London, too. More recently, we have launched a forum for teachers to work together, share best practice, learn about FAQs related to the BTEC level 3 qualification unit 6 etc. See more here.

At Matrix, we have carefully mapped unit 6 and the learning objectives expected from students against our own microcontroller based products and in 2018, we launched specific kits based on Arduino and PIC microcontroller platforms, which are perfect for unit 6 of the BTEC level 3 in Engineering. We have also written a course, again perfect for the delivery of unit 6. This can be accessed completely free of charge here.

Description: Matrix product code:
PIC microcontroller system development kit BL0524
or, Arduino microcontroller system development kit BL0540
Kits include:
PIC (or Arduino) development centre and printer panel BL0562 or BL0599
E-blocks2 prototype / patch board BL0117
E-blocks2 Keypad board BL0138
E-blocks2 Actuators board BL0127
E-blocks2 Grove sensor board (including 4 sensors) BL0129
E-blocks2 Relay board BL0183
Other products the centre may require
C for PICmicro microcontrollers course EL543SI5
Flowcode site licence (50 users) Flowcode
Formula AllCode robot class set RB7518
Automatics essentials AU9020
Automatics control add-on kit AU9010
AllCode Robot arm RB2361
Microcontrollers for mechanical engineers inc. TETRIX Prime HP2810

Unit 6 kit breakdown

Training and support:

Alongside the equipment and software provision for unit 6, we’re also enjoying delivering training to centres. We’re able to have groups of teachers to our facilities in West Yorkshire, or capable of coming to your centre to complete a course with lecturers and teachers on the delivery of microcontroller system related topics. This is on top of the online forum based support we’re also offering completely free of charge.

Hardware:

E-blocks boards:

Depending on which route the college decides to take (assuming they choose the Arduino or PIC route), will determine firstly, whether they decide to go for the BL0524 PIC development kit, or the BL0540 Arduino version. This solution gives students all they require for studying unit 6 including the E-blocks2 combo board (with switches, LEDs, LCD display, potentiometer and light sensor).

The other boards in this kit (BL0117, BL0138, Bl0127, BL0129 and BL0183) are known as ‘downstream E-blocks’ and connect to the microcontroller programmer of choice to form a system for delivering of further unit learning objectives for unit 6.

Sensors:

Our E-blocks2 platform includes the BL0129 board, which is our module to add Grove sensors to. We include Grove sensors such as temperature, humidity, ultrasonic and infrared to the kits provided, to give students a broad understanding of sensor interfacing. Centres must remember the way that E-blocks baords and Grove sensors interface with the Flowcode software we develop and supply, to save time and effort for the centre’s teaching staff and students. There is no requirement for individual pin connections, no requirement for developing routines or code for sensors as everything is done for the user.

Simple and easy-to-use: The Grove gyro and accellorometer sensor component in Flowcode with all routines pre-loaded for the user.

‘Other’ hardware listed:

If you’re an aeronautical or mechanical engineering lecturer, delivering a course on microcontrollers, it’s important to think about what may (or may not) motivate your students. E-blocks2 baords and development panels/kits with flashing LEDs, LCD screens and sensors will motivate the electronic and electrical students, but the mechanical students may need something more bespoke to their needs and requirements. This needs to be carefully considered and as a result, Matrix have ready-made solutions which might suit mechanical engineers better. It’s an alternative way of delivering some of the core learning objectives of the unit in an interesting manner. Perhaps think about our robotics solutions for this?

Software:

Two more items on the list are extremely important.

Flowcode

Listed in the unit specification for unit 6, Flowcode is an easy to use graphical programming language for microcontrollers including PIC and Arduino. Flowcode is perfect for those who want their students to begin with something simple (a flowchart Arduino programming language) and progress to learning scripted code such as C. With a vast range of up over 250 components, it is perfect for those new to microcontroller programming or learning in an environment such as college or university.

Flowcode boasts tens of thousands of users, based in over 40 countries including more than 20 of the UK’s top Universities and many more colleges, this is the most user-friendly and best supported way of delivering unit 6 using a programming language endorsed by more than 3,000 professional engineers at some of the most prestigious engineering companies in the World.

C for PICmicro microcontroller course

Colleges choosing the PIC route may well want to use the Matrix’s C for PIC MCU training course. This CD ROM provides you with a complete solution to teaching and learning C programming for the PIC microcontroller. The course is structured in two parts: firstly, students are taken through the fundamentals of C programming in a series of on-screen tutorials that makes use of our virtual microcontroller to explain to students how C works.

This well proven methodology centres around a simulation of the microcontroller which allows students to clearly see the effects on the chip and internal variables and registers as each line of C code executes. Once students have understood the basics they carry out a series of labs using the Integrated Development Environment and compiler provided, to help build on their understanding. Tests and exercises to reinforce learning are provided. Once the students have built sufficient expertise in C programming they are able to use the software tools supplied on the CD for a wide range of projects.

 

For this and other units in the BTEC qualifications, centres have choices about what they will resources they use to teach; MPLAB from Microchip and the Arduino IDE are also options available to them. Flowcode, in particular however, gives the best chance of success to those teachers (and most importantly, students) to whom microcontroller systems are a new discipline they’re learning for the first time.

For further information, pricing, help, support and indeed guidance, please do not hesitate to get in touch with the Matrix team. We’re able to give you the best possible start to delivering the new unit 6 in Engineering whether you’re thinking ahead  or looking to make the step sooner. We look forward to hearing from you soon.

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