Universal 8-bit computer from scratch
A foundational, hands-on project for learning electronics, physics, programming, and computation. Adapted for novice students from Ben Eater’s Youtube Video Series , and Alberto Malvino’s “Digital Computer Electronics”, 1976.
The 8-bit computer is a “simple as possible but universal” CPU from discrete logic chips on 14 breadboards. Going from simple switches to logic gates to building block circuits to functional modules, all the way to an integrated system – no steps are skipped and nothing is asked to be taken on faith. The flow of the project encompasses the progression through various levels of abstraction, finally getting to the interface between hardware and software. Students see first hand how simple operations on binary 1’s and 0’s are combined and organized into a computer with a universal instruction set. In the final module of the project, students create their own assembly level instructions, figuring out how to set the control signals to achieve them, and write their own programs to perform more complex tasks. At a practical level, building the 8-bit computer forever demystifies how computers actually work. At a deeper level, it elucidates the fundamental nature of computation. The students see how the computer that they themselves built, with their own two hands, connects the abstract world with the physical world, math with science.
I have learned a lot from the 8-bit breadboard computer project and I have never been so excited to attend class before because of it. I have learned more concepts from the project than I have learned from all my other classes combined.
High School Junior at SVCTE, March 2020
Electronics & Computation CTE Course
A 520 hour Career Technical Education course (development in progress) that leverages the focus, flexibility, and practical bent of CTE with traditional core academics. The course will be 3hrs/day and be UC A-G certified (Math, Lab Science and History). The course is anchored around the Universal 8-bit Computer Project during the first half, then transitioning to individual and group self-selected projects for students that are ready. The concentrated hours and in class flipped/blended approach also allows for individual and group tutoring to backfill holes in students knowledge, thus realizing the lofty yet elusive goal of a truly mastery based approach to education. Students completing the course will be well positioned to get their foot in the door in the high tech industry, in hardware or software, as well as primed for an engineering or science degree program at college.
UPDATE May 2020
In Jan 2020, FoF Founder Randy True started teaching a 10 week pilot version of Universal 8-Bit Computer Curriculum at the Silicon Valley CTE Campus in San Jose, in Mechatronics teacher Jim Burnham’s 2 classes. The pilot was going very well with all 14 students in the 3hr afternoon class having completed the first 3 modules, and 20 students in the 2hr morning class having completed the first Clock module. New content was produced, in the form of videos of the updated student computer build as well as several mastery exercises of core electronics concepts. The new video count stands at 67, with many added to the platform EdPuzzle, where questions can be embedded and student view progress tracked. An intensive week long push in March culminated on the day school close, with providing the materials for all 34 students to build their 8-bit computers at home with distance learning support. This “remote” program is part of Focus on Foundations’ roadmap, with the coronavirus crisis just pulling it forward. For a framework, in addition to Ben Eater’s Youtube Videos, FOF Videos, and FOF Slides, a Slack Workspace was setup for students and teachers to collaborate. It is organized with channels for each module, and provides a searchable history for troubleshooting.