Project “OSCAR”

Now those old enough to remember may think that this blog is about the “Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio (OSCAR)” project. No, not quite although it is amazing to think that OSCAR 1, the first of a series of satellites, was launched on December 12, 1961, allowing 570 amateurs from 28 countries forwarding observations to the OSCAR project team. Hmmm, I digress.

Here in Melbourne, Australia, a local “OSCAR” project is underway, having been hatched in March, 2014.

Oscar is the 14 year old son of Bo and Helen, brother of Erik.

Bo and I are work colleagues and I was humbled and flattered when Bo asked would I be a mentor to Oscar during his quest to build a new computer as part of his Year 8 secondary school studies.

In March 2014 Bo, Oscar and I met at my home QTH to discuss the method by which the project would be tackled.

2014 April 5 Inside the box DSCF3291web compressedIn the words of Eric Parsloe, The Oxford School of Coaching and Mentoring, “Mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their own learning in order that they may maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be.”

And with these words echoing in my mind, Oscar outlined the plans in his mind for this project. I was immediately impressed by Oscar’s enthusiasm for the project and his ability to articulate to me answers to the project questions I asked, even if the answer was “I am not sure”.

Oscar proposed to build a working computer from scratch. Immediately we discussed progress on the development of  a “shopping list” of required parts,  sources of supply, the likely cost of the parts and timelines for key elements of the project.

We agreed that the actual “build” is important, but it is also important to plan the project so that the target goal is achieved within time, cost and resource envelopes. Oscar readily accepted this concept and we established a draft plan for the project.

The importance of documenting project progress was also discussed so that project timelines are always in the mind and when a final report or presentation is completed for the project, the key steps and learnings are readily accessible.

The feedback received from Bo and Oscar from that initial meeting was very positive.

April 5, 2014

Our second meeting with Oscar and Bo took place at Bo’s QTH and it was exciting to see the fruits of Oscar’s labour sitting on the bench in all its glory.

A quick inspection revealed that the mother board, memory board and graphics card were installed correctly and that all cables were in situ. The power supply was doing its job and the fan was visually very impressive.

However a problem was evident in that the display monitor was not showing anything on the screen.

It was impressed upon Oscar that having a fault is not a bad thing in projects, providing you can demonstrate and apply a logical approach to determining the likely cause of the issue and resolve it.

John F Kennedy once said “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

So failure at some point is a challenge to be successful.

Oscar with his "new" beast. Now to find a solution to a problem.

Oscar with his “new” beast. Now to find a solution to a problem.

Our discussions led to Oscar considering and applying some basic analysis techniques to establish where the source of the fault may be.

Was the graphics card correctly slotted with the correct connector from the computer to the monitor? Yes. Was the memory card in the correct slot? Yes. Had the monitor been tested on another machine to confirm that the monitor was fully operational? Yes.

With these checks completed, our discussions focused on the possibility of a board failure, even though brand new. This is not an uncommon problem.

A number of avenues were open:

1. Review the instructions for installation of each component and confirm correct installation;

2. Contact the supplier for additional assistance to diagnose the problem;

3. Use the family and friend network to “brainstorm” the issue.

A joint review of installation processes revealed nothing, however this was a good exercise for Oscar in double checking each component was in its correct place.

In the absence of being able to contact the supplier I contacted Wayne, VK3VCL, to confirm that our approach to the problem solving was a good one. Wayne has been professionally involved in computer building, maintenance and repair for many years and was able to validate our approach. A very trusted friend is Wayne.

Now this may seem like a long winded path to problem solving but no, for Oscar’s benefit the method outweighed any time expediency. And so it was that having eliminated potential hardware issues our attention turned to software.  It was determined that no operating system had been loaded onto the beast.

So today Oscar’s task was to source and load an O/S allowing the graphics card software to be loaded to detect the graphics hardware and provide a video output to the monitor.

Soon we will learn the outcome of this task.

2014 April 5 The Blue fan DSCF3296 web compressedIn the meantime I am impressed by Oscar’s approach to the project, his willingness to listen and respond to questioning, then demonstrate learnings.

I am also impressed by Bo, Helen and Erik’s support for Oscar’s project – this is marvellous to witness and a credit to all.

April 9, 2014

After our discussions on Saturday last it was time to learn how Oscar had progressed with fault finding on the “beast”, as it had not shown a glimmer of screen activity, despite the impressive sounds of the fan coupled with the mesmerizing colours splashing around inside the temporary case.

On to the telephone to talk with Oscar and great news! The “beast” is completely operational!!

Now where was the problem? A pesky little jumper in the wrong position on the motherboard, determining whether the BIOS should be clear or not.

Congratulations to Oscar for identifying this fault as his actions demonstrated that our discussion on logically checking and re-checking installation instructions paid dividends.  Oscar checked  the motherboard settings and other hardware connections and found the issue.

2014 April 5 cropped v Oscar with beast DSCF3303web compressed

A grin from Oscar as the “beast” is working!

Once the jumper was configured correctly the Windows 7 operating system was installed without problems.

It was interesting for Oscar to experience the video output to the monitor when appropriate drivers are not installed. In Oscar’s words the “screen writing was big and the colours were terrible”.

With the correct drivers  installed all was well with the world. The monitor behaved perfectly.

Where to now?

The next challenge for Oscar is to build his case. The chosen material is ply and designs are well advanced at this stage.

Oscar and I discussed a number of design aspects that need to be considered in housing the computer hardware, including:

  • air flow around components to avoid overheating;
  • acoustic noise suppression – fans can be noisy;
  • extraction of dust in the case, and;
  • fixing of internal wiring to minimize wire stresses and enable clear identification of wiring.

Oscar has agreed that the case will be completed by April 20, 2014, at which time we will meet again and review the project status. Hmmm, that’s only 11 days away Oscar!!

2014 April 5 Cooler master close up DSCF3293 web compressedWith the computer hardware/software functioning and Oscar well on the way to designing the case, our next brainstorming session will include discussions on how to demonstrate the operation of Oscar’s project to his teacher and peers, with time constraints.

Now that in itself will be a challenge!!

Stay tuned for the next installment……..

April 14, 2014

While most secondary school students are enjoying the school holidays, Oscar has been extremely busy working on his computer case as part of his school project.

The weekend proved to be exceptional weather-wise, with glorious sunshine, fine autumn weather and a pleasant breeze. Perfect to break out the tools and build and test the prototype computer case format.

So what is a prototype? defines a prototype as a  “Pre-production model of a product, engineered for full service test. Changes based on test results are incorporated into the prototype which undergoes the same tests again. On achieving the desired results, the product is approved for volume production. “

This is an excellent definition, as Oscar has embarked upon a discovery phase in the project, working with materials not generally associated with computer cases. Computer cases serve to hold all components together, provide adequate air flow across boards to ensure operation within  component parameters and generally protect wiring and circuit boards.

2014 Oscar working Bo photo 2 cropped textWEB

Oscar concentrates on drilling holes in the prototype computer case

Oscar solidly worked on the weekend and managed to:

  • Complete the prototype plywood computer case;
  • Locate and cut out all ventilation holes;
  • Mount and test all computer hardware components;
  • Install and test a wireless modem “dongle”.

 The value of “prototyping” is evidenced by the experience Oscar has gained during the computer case build phase of the project.

Outcomes include:

  • Spacing of the computer base for better air ingress;
  • Relocation of the disk drive to allow for better user access;
  • Modification of some hardware placements;
  • Consideration of screw fixings to ensure a good panel fit;
  • Sequencing of panel end grain for better aesthetics.
    2014 Oscar working Bo photo 3 cropped textWEB

    The computer fans look awesome peeking out from their “cut-outs”.

    With the prototyping work now  complete, the next step is to produce the “production” model, incorporating all of the design learnings from the “prototype” stage. This may sound easy but in practice requires a high degree of skill in replicating the prototype design and incorporating all of the design changes identified.

    Oscar is demonstrating an excellent “systems” approach to this project in evaluating his work every step of the way.

I am looking forward to seeing the production computer case when completed, knowing full well that Oscar has proven that the computer hardware and software is fully operational.

Thanks to Bo for the additional photographs.

April 30, 2014

The days are becoming shorter and the temperature is dropping so the tendency is to slow down a little, curl up on the couch and keep warm when the opportunity arises.

In Oscar’s world the days are becoming shorter but the heat is on to complete his project before the due completion date, now only a few weeks away. No couch and slumbering for Oscar!!

With the prototype computer case completed and experience gained, work is well under way by Oscar to produce the final computer case product, complete with mesh fan covers and a suitable power switch.

A search of my “very well organized” (not) radio shack revealed a multitude of slide, toggle, chunky, slim, antiquated and modern switches. Of course I knew I had all of these tucked away in safe places (not) and it was only a matter of finding them.

A selection were duly dispatched to Oscar for appraisal and Oscar is now assessing the best switch for his application. As part of the process, Bo (Oscar’s Dad) recently purchased a new multimeter and this is the perfect opportunity for Oscar to use the multimeter to determine the function of each of the switch contacts and identify the “on” and “off” condition when the switch is activated and deactivated for each of the switch contacts.

2014 Oscar working Bo photo 4 cropped textWEB

Oscar measuring materials for his “production” computer case after successfully designing and manufacturing his “prototype”.

With the computer fan locations sorted, Oscar is now researching a source of grill covers for the fans. The grill covers allow for the circulation of air to keep the Central Processing Unit (CPU), Graphics Card and other computer components to perform without overheating. The grill also minimizes the effect of “dirty” air contaminated with dust, smoke, hair (pet or otherwise) and other nasties. The grills also aim to reduce the noise eminating from the computer itself.

Fan grills come in all shapes, sizes, textures and designs. One could easily think that not much thought is required in choosing a grill type. Wrong!!

I have passed on to Oscar an excellent article describing a series of tests using a combination of patterns including wire, mesh, angled slats, concentric circles and more with some surprising results in relation to air flow and noise.Here is a reference link to the article- just copy and paste in to your browser.

Incidentally the computer continues to work without fault and Oscar is certainly “road testing” the beast to its maximum.

Shortly attention will turn to Oscar’s presentation of his project work and results. A couple of excellent ideas have been discussed in relation to “showcasing” the beast. More in the next chapter.

Keep up the pace, Oscar!! The finish line is visible in the distance with a couple of inclines and perhaps “blind” turns before the finish line is in reach!

May 10, 2014

Apologies to the loyal followers of “Project Oscar” as this post has been delayed due to technical challenges which have now been resolved.

Oscar (and Bo) appreciated the article on types of grills and advantages/disadvantages. This was certainly an eye opener to me as well. After digesting the information Oscar chose to procure some wire grills and these have now been sourced for installation.

The preparation of the “production” plywood case for the computer has progressed well, highlighting again the benefits of producing a prototype during the course of the project. Oscar’s practical skills have been enhanced together with his application of various tools to produce desired outcomes. This is evidenced in Oscar’s progression from using a jigsaw to cut out his prototype holes for fan grills, then choosing to “fine tune” the results with a router drill attachment. The difference in the finished is evident.

Oscar with ply cut outs Photo 2 web

Oscar demonstrates skills progression – at left original cutout using a jigsaw and at right the product of using a router fitting to a drill.

With the final production well advanced it was time to turn to a discussion with Oscar on key elements of presenting to his peers and parents.

Bo, Oscar and I established a Skype contact, which proved to be a very good medium for discussions. We can now record that during the project, meetings have been held face to face, via telephone and Skype. The internet is generally very reliable and with an increase in data transfer rates Skype has become an inexpensive and viable contact medium.

Each student only has 5 minutes to present a summary of their project experiences and outcomes,  giving just 300 seconds to impart key messages to the audience –  a real challenge to even experienced presenters. After all, if you have directed your passion towards a project such as this over a long period of time, as Oscar has, you could talk for hours!!

During our discussions Oscar was able to clearly articulate to me some key understandings in being able to present effectively. Very impressive.

The following points highlight my thoughts in relation to successful presentations and formed the basis of our discussions.

1.     Identify the topic/subject of the presentation and know your subject.

2.     Identify the purpose of your presentation.

3.     Engage the audience – rove the audience and make eye contact with everyone not just a few, be passionate and enthusiastic, modulate your voice and don’t stick to the one spot on the stage. Make the audience follow you by moving around the stage and by using hand movements to excite the audience.

4.    Consider the audience demographics (age, gender, culture, etc.) and pitch the presentation at the right technical level, with plain language avoiding “jargon” and acronyms. The audience may not have the same level of expertise that you have.

 5.    Reference your comments with examples so that the audience can relate to your experiences and reflect on their own.

6.    Make sure you can properly pronounce every word in your presentation. Practice, practice, practice!!

7.     Be confident – your confidence will “infect” the audience in the right way and engage them even further.  

8.    Pre-prepare “cue” cards to prompt your key messages to the audience and your references to presentation materials, such as power point presentations and videos.

Given time constraints for his presentation, it is most unlikely that Oscar will be able to “drill” down for the audience into the workings of his computer, however one key message is that the “beast” is working and is providing a very stable and reliable platform for further computer project work. Already Oscar has loaded an Ubuntu Linex operating system and is experimenting with its capabilities. Ubuntu is extremely popular as a free operating system for developers and hobbyists, with the latest version having exceeded 1 million downloads.

The ply case stands tall Photo 6 web

The production ply case stands tall during final assembly.

The curtain will come up for Oscar’s presentation on Thursday, May 22. Oscar’s parents, brother, family, friends, peers and I look forward to the presentation. Oh, did I mention no pressure?

Even the most hardened professional presenter will be  nervious  prior to a presentation, irrespective of their background knowledge and experience. This will be no different for Oscar, however the “butterflies” are guaranteed to fly away when Oscar commands the stage and confidently imparts his experiences during this project.

Well done Oscar on your progress so far and good luck on Thursday evening!

May 22, 2014 – THE FINALE

It was the night of nights…..the auditorium of Oscar’s College was brimming with an audience of enthusiast family, friends and mentors of Year 8 presenters.

And the presenters did not fail to impress, with such a wide variety of projects ranging from a photographic year book, a sword, a “suit of armour” made of pliable material and of course to the larger products, including Oscar’s computer.

It is fair to say that the complexity of projects varied considerably, as did the presentation technique of students. But all impressed with their knowledge of the projects, their products and their ability to engage with the audience. I would not be surprised if some of the students become stand up comedians or speaking circuit drawcards in the future, such was their affinity with the audience.

The students ability to share a story with the audience on their trials, tribulations and successes was splendid, evidenced by the very detailed questions from the audience at the conclusion of each presentation.

And now to Oscar’s presentation.

OSCAR 2 Presenting to the masses DSCF4189 WEB

Oscar looks the audience “fair and square” in the eye, or is that eyes….very confident performance

Oscar commenced his presentation with authority in a loud and clear voice.

It was clear that Oscar had taken heed to discussions on presentations, as he spoke with a measured purpose and effortlessly demonstrated knowledge of his project.

Oscar’s stage manner was relaxed, with minimal reference to his notes and maximum engagement with the audience through eye contact and appropriate movement on stage.

The presentation highlighted Oscar’s successes in this project but did not dwell on them. Everyone in the audience was in no doubt that his project was working. The right balance was struck in mentioning some of the challenges of the project from the design of the ply case to the instability of the Windows platform and a choice of Linux as the operating system.

More importantly Oscar presented his experiences in being able to solve a problem once it was identified.


The stage lighting naturally highlights Oscar’s project product – a fully functional personal computer with an original designed and build ply case.

And Oscar’s project product “shone” in the lights from the stage.

Now I am far from a wood work expert however I was most impressed with Oscar’s ply design and finish. The positioning of the internal boards and interconnecting cables is logical and practical. The CD drive is positioned well together with the USB ports.

Oscar clearly absorbed the information contained in the article on fan grills,  locally sourcing the most efficient and cost effective grills to cool internal computer components.  The large fan grills are prominent and in my view add appeal to the overall appeal of the design, whilst being fully functional.

Now let’s not forget that a 5 minute presentation is only 300 seconds from start to finish. To present a structured, logical, informative presentation in that time challenges even the hardened presenter. Often presenters try to impart too much information rather than focusing on the important pieces of information.

Oscar – congratulations on your preparation and presentation.

You crammed into your 300 seconds the right balance of project, technical, product, construction, success and challenges information.

Your family (Bo, Helen, Erik and grandparents) are to be congratulated on their support to you  in all facets of this project. Nick (your teacher) is to be commended for his commitment to enthusiastically encouraging all Year 8 students to embark on a project of passion, including yourself.

It is obvious that Nick is respected by students and parents alike. Fantastic to see such a passion for enthusing students to produce such high quality work by supporting the students choice of project and product.

For me it has been a privilege to have been invited to assist in a small way in your project success. I too have learned a great deal during this journey and I thank you and your family in having the confidence in me to be able to provide mentoring advice to you.

You have demonstrated a natural talent in the field of computers/electronics and I sincerely hope that the opportunity you have had to explore these fields during this project continues to excite you in the future.

Photo 4 Toasting success with tea WEB

A toast to Oscar’s success – with some Green Tea of course!  Oh, by the way, Oscar is on the left.










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