Times keep changing.
Students used to pass notes behind your back. Now they’re texting and playing Clash of Clans under the desk. Instant access to information has changed the way that students learn, too. With more distractions than ever, bringing physical computing experiences into your classroom could be the key to engaging your students and bridging the real world/theoretical gap.
“Engagement” has become something of a buzzword. It’s easier said than done. But some things are more likely to engage, and some aren’t.
Even reluctant learners and other students who initially may seem less interested in STEM can have fun and learn important, fundamental skills when they’re engaged.
One approach that’s gaining traction is to engage students in physical computing experiences where they can actively learn computing concepts like coding and circuit logic by solving problems as they go.
What is Physical Computing?
Physical computing is the use of physical items to interact with computers and computers to interact with the world. This is in contrast to what we usually think of as computing, where a person completes virtual tasks using computer programs.
Physical computing has established a presence in a small number of schools around the country. In many cases, there’s just one teacher or administrator who’s trying it, but supporters of the concept believe its role will grow. At the same time, they acknowledge that there are obstacles to implementing these types of programs, including concerns about the cost of applying it in classrooms, and the training educators need to make it happen.
Other types of hands-on, STEM-focused activities, like maker spaces, have grown more popular in K-12 districts, libraries, and other settings over the past few years, and some educators say they share many of the same goals as physical computing.
Similar to other hands-on or project-based learning programs, physical computing is meant to encourage interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial thinking and foster student creativity.
The goal is to allow students “to experience how interactivity happens,” said Rashmi Pimprikar, program director of STEAM and computer science initiatives for the Boston public schools. Students using the strategy “can solve problems, express themselves and create using technology.”
A generation or so ago, a mix of the analog and the “digital” was pretty much limited to binary “true/false” computations. Here are some examples you may have done during school:
- A matching game: A light bulb lights up if you complete the circuit by connecting the two matching items. The lightbulb indicates “true” (or, “correct”). “Coding” consists of mapping tin foil between the correct matches and insulating each foil path.
- A basic thermostat: A heating lamp heats a bimetallic strip, which bends to complete a circuit that turns on a cooling fan. The fan cools the strip until it straightens enough to open the circuit, and the fan turns off. “Coding” consists of placing the objects so that the fan maintains a comfortable temperature range.
Don’t get us wrong—those experiments are neat, and they demonstrate fundamental concepts. But compared to what students and teachers do in classrooms today, those simple experiences don’t even scratch the surface of what’s possible.
More importantly, these classic lessons aren’t sufficient to prepare students to compete in college and the high-tech job markets of the future.
The Age of Arduino
Today, in the age of microcomputers like Arduino, what amounts to basic science literacy has shifted. Now, you can do super neat things that also happen to teach critical lifelong science skills. Neat, memorable classroom experiences engage students. Engaged students learn.
By bringing physical computing experiences into the classroom, like building and coding your own laser particle counter, students can learn essential science literacy in new, engaging ways.
And, physical computing experiences aren’t just a new way to teach old skills. Physical computing is directly relevant to the Internet of Things, augmented and virtual reality, and other up and coming technologies. Even more importantly, classes that focus on experiential physical computing teach all students fundamentals that are applicable to all of the STEM fields.
For example, using physical computing experiences to teach standards-based lessons means you’re able to integrating computing into other subjects. (It’s like feeding two birds with one scone!)
Teachers can create physical computing experiences across a broad range of skills and activities. Starting with basic circuit logic, students can build and code a circuit that acts as a dynamic braking system, build a reflex game, or even engineer an alarm.
What you might see in a room full of physical computing experiences might look a little lose or a little crazy at first: students will be out of their seats. They won’t be looking at the same things at the same time. They’ll be talking together trying to figure things out. And yes, it might get a little loud.
But the student’s phones will probably be in their pockets, and their minds will be actively engaged.