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Skip to 0 minutes and 1 second [WHOOSH] Physical computing involves learners creating programs that interact with the physical environment using various input and output devices. The nature of physical computing helps to embed computing concepts and develop strong computational thinking skills. Your learners can create anything from a simple flashlight to motor-driven catapult. The possibilities are endless. Research shows that physical computing is highly motivational. By seeing a tangible, physical product at the end, learns can better evaluate their accomplishments. Physical computing projects offer learners the opportunity to tackle divergent goals and apply their creativity and incorporate their interests. It stands to reason that the more invested your learners are in a project, the more likely they are to investigate and improve.

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 seconds This is why focusing on creative projects is beneficial for the success of physical computing. If you’re considering undertaking some physical computing in your lessons, visit and observe other practical departments in your school and see how they organise their kit and get ideas. Try recruiting student digital leaders to help you organise and check equipment during lunch breaks or to keep on top of broken or missing pieces. Spend some time researching and testing equipment. Consider cost, flexibility, ease of use, and availability of the hardware. Try borrowing kit, attending some training, or using an emulator where possible. Be organised. A portable tinker trolley with labelling trays is a good place to start.

Skip to 1 minute and 23 seconds You can keep all of your kits in one place and move it around your department as needed. Label everything and store some sample code and circuit cards that can be placed around the classroom to provide additional support. Teach your class to set up and put away the kit. It takes a little time, but it will be much faster for you in the long run. What are your experiences with physical computing in your school? What ideas do you have for project in your lessons? Share your ideas and experiences in the comment section. [CLICK]

Physical computing

What is physical computing?

Physical computing involves learners creating programs that interact with the physical environment using various input and output devices. The concrete nature of physical computing is thought to help embed computing concepts and develop strong computational thinking skills. With physical computing, your learners could create anything from a simple flashing light (more engaging than it might sound) to a motor-driven trebuchet. The possibilities are endless.

Why use physical computing in the classroom?

Physical computing is highly motivational. There have been two recent studies that looked at motivation in computing with particular focus on physical computing.

Study 1: A Crafts-Oriented Approach to Computing in High School (Yasmin B. Kafai et al.)

This study looked at creating e-textiles. This was a process where LilyPad Arduino construction kits were used to link fabric products with lights, sounds, and sensors. Learners already had experience of programming, and some were disheartened by it because they couldn’t visualise why it was useful to them. After applying those programming skills to create a variety of projects, they developed “more realistic, personally relevant, and expansive perspectives of computing”.

By seeing a tangible product at the end, it gave them better grounds to evaluate their accomplishments. They were proud of their achievements and could easily “show them off” to their friends and family, because they were physical achievements and not just lines of code.

Study 2: Impact of Physical Computing on Learner Motivation (Mareen Przybylla and Ralf Romeike)

This was part of a wider study into physical computing and showed that “overall, physical computing activities result in higher motivational values than the average of any other activities in computer science classroom”.

What is the best way to use physical computing in the classroom?

Physical-computing projects offer scope for learners to tackle divergent goals and therefore enable them to apply creativity and incorporate their interests. It stands to reason that the more invested our learners are in a project, the more they are likely to investigate and improve. This is why focusing on creative projects is beneficial for the success of physical computing.

A 2017 study (The Nature of Physical Computing in Schools, by Mareen Przybylla and Ralf Romeike) found that “in physical computing… tinkering and experimenting is often encouraged, both in design contexts and in the school projects”. While the more successful schools did invest time in the basics, they rapidly moved on to applying those skills in a creative project. Deeper learning happened during the project phase, because learners wanted to succeed and were happy to research and learn new skills as their projects developed.

Mitchel Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch, reinforced this when he said,

“What’s important is that they are engaged in creating something that is meaningful to themselves or to others around them.”

Physical computing lends itself to creating all sorts of solutions to problems that learners want to solve. Creating meaningful projects with your class will improve motivation and boost their computational-thinking skills.

Some practical advice

  • Visit and observe other practical departments in your school to see how they organise their kit and get ideas
  • Employ student “digital leaders” to help you organise and check equipment during lunch breaks to keep on top of broken or missing pieces
  • Spend time researching and testing equipment; consider the cost, flexibility, ease of use, and availability of content (amongst other things); try borrowing kit, attending some training, or using an emulator (if available)
  • Be organised: a portable “tinker trolley” with labelled trays is a good place to start — you can keep all of your kit in one place and move it around your department as needed
  • Label everything!
  • Keep a bank of sample code and circuit cards with your “tinker trolley” that can be placed around the classroom to provide additional support
  • Teach your class to set up and pack down the kit — it takes a little time but will be much faster for you in the long run

Where should you start?

Here are some great places to start with physical computing:

Here are some suggested reading materials:

Discuss

  • Is there any physical-computing kit in your school that you now feel more inspired to use? How will you use it?
  • What experience do you have with physical computing? What has worked for you, and what has been less successful?
  • What physical-computing projects have you seen done well? What projects would you like to do with your students?

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Programming Pedagogy in Secondary Schools: Inspiring Computing Teaching

Raspberry Pi Foundation

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