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Engaging Strategies for Physical Computing

by Miguel Guhlin
soldering iron on a circuit on a board

“I enjoyed the hands-on and engaging session,” said one workshop participant. “It was awesome,” said another. The session was Physical Computing and Computational Thinking. How can we make connections between teacher as facilitator and computational thinking? Let’s explore key design principles aligned to the ISTE Standards for Educators.

Did You Know?

You can get ISTE Certified via the TCEA’s ISTE Certification program. This digital credential recognizes educators who understand how to use edtech for learning in meaningful and transformative ways. Learn more about that opportunity here.

ISTE Standards for Educators: Facilitator

Though there are seven ISTE standards for Educators, the Facilitator one stands out. It stands out because it shifts our focus from the teacher to student empowerment. In the Facilitator standard, educators ease learning with technology. They do this to to support achievement of the ISTE Standards for Students. Several ways they make this happen include:

  • Fostering a culture where students take ownership. Students own their learning goals and outcomes, as individuals or as part of a group.
  • Managing the use of technology and student learning strategies. This happens with digital platforms, virtual environments, hands-on makerspaces, or in the field.
  • Creating learning opportunities that challenge students. Two ways to assure this include design process and computational thinking. The purpose of using these two approaches is to scaffold innovation and problem solving.
  • Modeling and nurturing creativity and creative expression. This is to make communicating ideas, knowledge, or connections more effective.

Let’s take a look at the first three points (fostering, managing, and creating). We can look at these via the lens of Physical Computing.

Physical Computing

Not familiar with the term “physical computing?” Wikipedia defines it as “building interactive physical systems.” You make this happen through the use of software and hardware that have senses and respond to an analog world.  Handmade art, design, or Do-It-Yourself (DIY) projects use sensors and microcontrollers. These devices translate analog inputs to a software system and/or control devices.

A host of small micro-devices are available in classrooms. From the Ozobot to Adafruit’s Circuit Playground Express to Micro:bit, they are legion. Even more of these small devices comprise the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT may reach 50 billion devices in 2020. Learning to code, control, design, and deploy is thus all the more important.

Strategy #1 – Fostering a Culture of Ownership

For students, owning an idea can mean having access to resources to make. In maker-rich environments, students identify a problem or innovation they want to pursue. They may solve an existing problem or develop a new way of getting something done. A culture of ownership moves beyond providing resources. It involves making an emotional connection that engages students in a problem. One way, aside from humor and personal stories, involves activating students’ imagination. This can involve students imagining a scene from a text or visualizing a historical scene. It can also involve taking an imaginary journey or teaching with controversy. You can learn more about using emotion to increase engagement and student ownership.

Make the Physical Computing Connection

If you want to foster a culture of ownership with physical computing, then try the micro:bit Global Challenge. Their challenge asks students, “Can you help solve a problem in your community using the BBC micro:bit?” They include cross-curricular resources such as lesson plans, classroom presentations, and student worksheets. See their teacher resources online.

Strategy #2 – Managing Technology and Learning Strategies

In this strategy, teachers assist in the selection and use of digital platforms. This can range from learning management systems to social media tools. In many situations, students and teachers may not have a say over what digital platforms they can use. The district or school governing authority may have said, “Microsoft Teams must be the one” or Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas, and host of other LMSs. As educators, we must speak up and choose the LMS that least restricts student learning. LMSs in the past have shut the virtual classroom door. Today, LMSs are often working to serve as a gateway to learning beyond the confines of a classroom.

Make the Physical Computing Connection

Want to use a digital platform to engage and connect with others outside the classroom? Create a hashtag for Instagram and Twitter. Use your class Instagram account to share images of a problem in your community. Invite others to devise a solution for it. One example may be to create a night sensor for areas that are not well-lit at dark. Learn more about this idea.

Strategy #3 – Create Challenging Learning Opportunities

Creating challenging learning opportunities for students can involve design thinking and computational thinking. Both approaches expect students to break down complex steps into simpler algorithms. Computational thinking is a way of solving problems. This thinking has four elements which include decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithm design. Watch this video. Computational thinking does not mean you must be a computer science whiz.

The four elements of computational thinking appear below (Source):

  • Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable parts
  • Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data
  • Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns
  • Algorithm Design: Developing step-by-step instructions for solving this and similar problems

The goal is to make these elements student accessible.

Make the Physical Computing Connection

Students can learn to use diagrams to express a solution. This involves abstraction, or identifying general principles that generate recognizable patterns. Students make up rules that reflect an observed pattern. The Rock-Paper-Scissors activity with the micro:bit is one way students learn that. Students use “on shake” to create a reaction (e.g. rock, paper, scissors). Over time, students may notice a pattern. These patterns for playing the game (e.g. scissors, paper or rock) are observable. Students program the micro:bit so it can understand the game’s logic. Students learn to figure out the game in a way they can code into a computer (Source).

Want to Try Physical Computing?

Want to give physical computing and computational thinking a try? Contact TCEA for a face-to-face workshop. Don’t take my word for how much fun learning can be. Listen to Julie, and  Ethel, workshop participants, share.


Feature image. Available online

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