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What is physical computing?

What is physical computing, and why should you and your students pursue it? This video explains how it can turn designs into reality.

This course will show you how to participate in and teach physical computing, mainly using the Crumble microcontroller.

Let’s start with a basic definition.

What is physical computing?

“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 are an opportunity to practise your design skills and 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

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, buttons can be pressed, sensors can detect the change 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.

Photo of a group working on a physical computing activity

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.

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Teaching Physical Computing to 5- to 11-year-olds

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