Fun Ways of Teaching Electronics Using an Oscilloscope

Every physics classroom in the country likely has an old oscilloscope lying around the store room. Some teachers shy away from using this versatile device as a teaching tool in favor of the more modern DSOs and hand held oscilloscopes. What many don't realize  though, is that the oscilloscope is not simply a boring piece of bench top equipment, but can be a springboard for all sorts of fun lessons.

While many have never dared upset the default setting of the scope, playing with the X against Y mode of your device in different scales and time bases can yield some interesting results with the right signal input. If you're handy with logic chips, timer circuits, and a pair of copper wire strippers, tricking your machine into displaying clever patterns isn't as hard as you might think. Circuits involving programmable chips and pulse width modulation (PWM) pins allow you to create static images of all sorts on the screen. For something animated, though, you'll need a more powerful device.

An Arduino board connected to your scope's probes can be used to play all kinds of tricks with the screen. By using copper wire strippers and some solder to hook up your probes to a micro-controller board and writing some simple programs, your micro-controller can display complex graphics, and even make the pictures move in impressive ways. With some clever programming, an oscilloscope can be made to act almost like a regular cathode ray tube monitor!

It's not unheard of for oscilloscopes to be used as platforms for displaying impressive videos using just a sound card.

Some tinkerers have created downloadable .flac files to play through your scope, but there's nothing stopping you from creating a video like this yourself with the right software. It's often a good choice to use an Arduino or Raspberry Pi in lieu of a sound card, since most computer and mobile sound cards have filters preventing high quality display of the signals. Once you get the hang of the micro-controller interfaces, there are limitless possibilities for this kind of tinkering.

Remember those classic video games of your childhood looming over you and lit up brightly on a cathode ray tube screen? Now you can relive the magic by loading an Arduino board with a cleverly programmed game, and playing away on your scope.

This fun project is perfect for a small class to work on together or individually, teaching them the importance of getting the hardware interfaces working efficiently, while allowing them to have some fun with the end result. It also makes a great pass time over the weekend if you have some spare components lying around and some spare time on your hands. Starting a simple project like this can be a great way to learn some new skills, and exercise your creative side.

Playing with oscilloscopes is a great way to learn the basics of programming and running small integrated circuits, or even the Arduino board itself. Teaching your class to perform simple hacks such as this will stimulate their imaginations and have them hungry to learn more and more about electronic circuits and what they can do. So why not brush the dust off that old scope, and give it a go?


Written by:

Christopher Parkinson’s interest in electronics stem from an early age, I remember watching my father using a multimeter to test my Scaletrix which had stopped working.  At that time this was the most fantastic thing I had ever seen bear in mind I was 6 and so very easily impressed.  I went on to study microprocessor design theory before working for a company repairing mobile phones.  

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