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This content is taken from the Raspberry Pi Foundation & National Centre for Computing Education's online course, Teaching Physical Computing with Raspberry Pi and Python. Join the course to learn more.

What is physical computing?

This course will show you how to participate in and teach physical computing with the Raspberry Pi computer. A logical way to start this course would be to answer two key questions:

  • What is physical computing?
  • Why should you and your students pursue it?

Physical computing and digital making

“Physical computing covers the design and realization of interactive objects and installations and allows students to develop concrete, tangible products of the real world, which arise from the learners’ imagination.” (Przybylla, 2014)

The above description, from computing education researcher Mareen Przybylla, is one of the best descriptions of this discipline out there. It highlights some important points that are worth expanding upon.

Users designing a physical computing project, gathered around a table

Design and realisation

Physical computing is the process of understanding, planning, and implementing projects, both large and small. These projects offer you the opportunity to practise and hone your design skills and your ability to turn your designs into reality. Physical computing describes the whole process, not just the electronics and programming aspects.

A physical computing project, consisting of wired components and foil joysticks used to control the behaviour of a Raspberry Pi

Interactive objects and installations

When designing a piece of software or creating a digital artefact, users are limited in how they interact with your product, for example by using a keyboard or touchscreen. Physical computing is different in that users can interact with and get feedback from your creation more widely in the real world: LEDs can light up, robotic arms can move, and so on.

A physical computing project, consisting of two motors which spin "pointers" which give instructions for a game.

Concrete, tangible products of the real world

Physical computing offers opportunities for you to create digital solutions that directly impact the real world. The devices are driven by real-world needs and solve real-world problems.

A pair of makers, imagining the plans for their physical computing project.

The learner’s imagination

This is the crux: the projects you create will come from your imagination and use computing as an artistic medium of self-expression.

Simon Peyton Jones (Chair of the National Centre for Computing Education) put it best when he said:

“When you engage in computing, you are working with pure thought stuff and turning it into a reality.”

This is very powerful as a learning tool.

Digital making

Here at the Raspberry Pi foundation, we often call what we do ‘digital making’. We like to think of it as a combination of physical computing and the use of digital tools to solve problems. It is helpful to see why we make this distinction.

Oliver Quinlan, Head of Impact and Research at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, previously worked for Nesta and produced the Young Digital Makers report exploring the emerging field of digital making for young people in the UK.

“Digital skills, digital literacies, digital creativity; there are many terms used by different people in different ways in this area. Since 2012, Nesta and others have been emphasising digital making as distinct from simply using digital devices. From programming entirely on a computer to designing and 3D-printing physical objects, digital making represents a diverse range of activities. It doesn’t include checking your email or browsing a website (clearly digital, but not making). It isn’t the array of making activities young people take part in without technology.

Nesta’s Digital Makers Fund focused on learning through making an end product in such a way that young people learn about the underlying technologies they use and how they work. [Nesta] supported organisations that encourage young people to ‘look under the hood’ of technology while they are making. Other groups refer to digital making more broadly. They would include activities such as producing your own electronic music or editing a video. These activities may not involve understanding how the fundamental technology works, but do involve manipulating it using existing tools in creative ways.

There is debate and discussion over the array of activities that come under the broad umbrella term of ‘digital making’. [Nesta] feel it is helpful for organisations to clearly describe what they mean by the term, but it may be less productive to try to distil it into a universal definition.”

If you would like to know more, there is further reading on digital making below under “See also”.

What does physical computing mean to you?

You have chosen to give your time to complete this course on physical computing.

  • What drew you to the course?
  • If you have some experience with digital making, share your thoughts on it
  • What are you hoping to take away from the course?

Leave your responses in the comments below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Teaching Physical Computing with Raspberry Pi and Python

Raspberry Pi Foundation