As a college student in the 1960s, Jim Brakefield, senior life member of IEEE, wanted to learn more about both hardware and software. His career began in embedded systems and gradually included printed circuit board (PCB) design and field programmable gate array (FPGA) projects.
About two decades ago, he saw an opportunity to provide low-cost ($10-20) kits for micro-controller education. Although that particular endeavor did not result in a project, he did pursue Arduino and Raspberry Pi projects, which accomplished low-cost micro-controller education and are now used worldwide at all grade levels.
Fast-forward to today and wanting to spread the word about FPGA usage, Brakefield once again sought a way to lower the cost of entry. He looked to also address the learning curve by introducing the subject at the high school level.
Through an IEEE Computer Society Emerging Technology Grant, Brakefield was able to develop an experimental venue for FPGA education: FGPA “Boot Camps” for high school, college, and continuing education students. St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas provided the boot camp’s classrooms at no cost.
Finding an introductory FGPA board—within budget
“FPGA prices have risen significantly over the last two years,” said Brakefield. A full featured FPGA board was found that fit the grant budget. (Many full-featured boards can cost up to $200.)
Selection criteria to find the most suitable low-cost board included sufficient switches, push-buttons, LEDs and 7-segment digits. The team located potential boards costing about $70 with educational pricing. These fit within the overall budget, saving the cost and effort needed for an add-on board.
One candidate, DE-10 Lite, is used by two of the local universities. Brakefield preferred the other choice, a Boolean Board as the schematic editor, which generated VHDL/Verilog and the IO constraint file.
“In my personal experience, generating the constraint file is both menial and error-prone. The ability to generate correct VHDL/Verilog and a correct constraint file supports the idea of learning VHDL/Verilog by immersion,” he said.
Brakefield explained that a built-in IO done just right would have the following:
10+ slide switches or DIP switches
6+ push buttons
10+ LEDs, two tri-color (RGB)
7-segment LEDs (four to eight digits)
VGA or HDMI connector
Some expansion IOs
Arduino, Pi, PMOD, Grove, DIP pattern…
DRAM & SD card slot for soft processor usage
Boot Camp curriculum
The Boot Camp, which is designed to last two days, serves as an introduction to FPGA education (today, also called modern digital systems).
During Day 1, students received a refresher on binary and digital logic, as well as a background on FGPA boards. They installed a digital logic simulator on a PC and configuration files for an FPGA board. Students created, drew, and operated example circuits, generated RTL files for FPGA board and examined RTL files.
On Day 2, students completed tasks including installing Xilinx Vivado, as well as RTL and constraint file backgrounds. They initialized projects and compiled, placed, and routed, and then downloaded to FPGA boards. They drew and exercised a schematic on their PC, ran it through the tool chain, and saw identical behavior on the FPGA board.
“Those that were truly interested had the great experience of a successful encounter with the FPGA board. You could see their faces light up,” said Brakefield. “And it was very helpful for the more advanced students to assist other students with problems.”
At the completion of the class, students were able to take home their boards and received certificates to mark their success.
Brakefield said he is considering using the San Antonio incubators or facilities at the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology (SAMSAT) to form a team to conduct additional FPGA Boot Camps. Students would be required to provide a Windows or Linux lap-top with 40GB of available disk space.
“The University and STEM educational establishments are evolving to provide better digital education,” Brakefield commented. “Ten years ago, FPGAs were largely a graduate school subject. Now most colleges provide undergraduate courses. And there is now STEM courseware for high schools that introduces engineering, digital systems, and FPGAs.”