‘Physical Computing’ Connects Computer Science With Hands-On Learning

By Lauraine Genota — January 23, 2019 7 min read
Seventh graders Colton Fairbairn, left, and Mike Kayembe work through a physical computing exercise at Rocky Top Middle School in Thornton, Colo.
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A teacher in Virginia uses a micro-controller to connect a computer to a keyboard, allowing kindergarten students to play musical notes that are triggered when they high-five their classmates.

In Colorado, a teacher asks 7th graders to code a random number generator that teaches them programming skills by playing rock, paper, scissors.

These are just two examples of teachers using so-called “physical computing,” an emerging instructional strategy that tries to teach students about computer science and computational thinking through physical tools and hands-on activity.

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 Boston public schools. (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.)

Students using the strategy “can solve problems, express themselves, and create using technology,” Pimprikar said.

Computational-Problem Solving

In September, the International Society for Technology in Education, one of the biggest ed-tech associations in the country, held a webinar that called for schools to use physical computing as a strategy for making computer science more accessible to students.

Many toys and products have come onto the market to address physical computing needs, through some combination of computer science and hands-on instruction. Those devices include programmable robots and coding and circuit tools.

The hands-on approach to teaching computational thinking is a good way to “check off” the competencies that students should learn as part of the Computer Science Teachers Association K-12 Computer Science Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, said Pimprikar, who led the ISTE webinar on physical computing.

Some of the expectations laid out in the CSTA and NGSS standards that connect to physical computing, she said, include problem decomposition, developing models, creating and testing computational products, solving computational problems, collaboration, and communication.

‘More Than Just a Computer’

To meet those standards, students “need more than just a computer,” said Anna Otto, the computer-science and online learning coordinator for Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Colorado, which is incorporating physical computing into its 7th grade computer-science curriculum. Otto said the district knew it needed to use the concept to meet the standards outlined in its curriculum.

One educator who has turned to physical computing to introduce her students to computer science is Meredith Cosier, a visual arts and STEAM teacher in Fairfax County, Va.

Cosier teaches her Bucknell Elementary kindergarten students about circuits by having them make music with their hands and a Makey Makey board. The Makey Makey board is a micro-controller that can be connected to a computer and interact with Makey Makey apps available online.

In Cosier’s lesson, the Makey Makey micro-controller is connected to a computer, which is then connected to Makey Makey’s piano app. A metallic set of clips, which creates electrical connections, is attached to the micro-controller, and students hold onto the other end. When students high-five, they close the circuit between the board and their body, and a note plays on the computer.

The challenge for Cosier is that “working with an abstract idea doesn’t have a singular solution.” She doesn’t make models when she asks them to create something, because she doesn’t want to give them a solution.

“It’s hard to help the students without telling them what to do,” she said. “It’s a struggle to keep it open-ended.”

Kimberly Sheridan, an associate professor of educational psychology at George Mason University in Virginia, said physical computing is appealing in that it can help students bridge the gap between the digital and physical worlds.

But it’s no sure thing that physical computing will actually improve students’ understanding of computational thinking and computer science, said Sheridan, who has researched the impact of maker spaces on student learning.

For instance, when students are told to 3-D print something that someone else has already made, the potential for learning is minimal, she said. But if they’re taught to design an object in 2-D with the goal of having it function properly in 3-D, that can lift their academic understanding.

The risk in using some tools is that they’ve “been made so user-friendly that it’s hard to get kids to the next level of computational thinking,” Sheridan said. “It’s good for engaging kids initially, but we need to be able to move them to advanced content, where they are really thinking computationally and problem-solving.”

A 7th grader at Rocky Top Middle uses a microcontroller, which is controlled through a dashboard on the student’s laptop.

While today’s students are often referred to as “digital natives,” Pimprikar argues that much of their interaction with technology is superficial, focused on using it to play games or check social media.

Physical computing asks them to become designers, not just users of technology, she said. It forces them to develop prototypes of products and go through multiple testing to get to the final product. And it reinforces computing practices through open-ended exploration where “creativity can grow and flourish,” Pimprikar said.

Physical computing, which is about the interaction between the person and the machine, also has the potential to make students think differently about technology and make better choices about using it, argues Tom Igoe, a professor from New York University and co-founder of a software and hardware company, Arduino.

“Our lives are affected by digital technology, but we don’t always see how we are impacted by it,” Igoe said. “When you have a better understanding of the technology, you make better choices on how to use it.”

Closing the Skills Gap

But even supporters of physical computing see obstacles to its growth in K-12. One is that many teachers aren’t trained in how to teach computer science or computational thinking, and so they’re likely to need a lot of professional development to close that gap.

“If you don’t feel comfortable teaching it, then it’s going to take a long time,” said Cosier, the teacher from Virginia. “It’s not for the novice. You have to self-educate, and really see the benefits of bringing it into the classroom.”

Making a commitment to teaching physical computing also carries a pricetag, as the Adams 12 Five Star district, outside Denver, discovered. The district implemented a new 7th grade computer science curriculum this school year, and to meet the standards, it purchased physical computing devices, like the micro-controller Micro:bits. It cost roughly $30,000 to purchase Micro:bits for the 11 middle schools in the district, Otto said.

“You have to find ways to get creative with funding,” Otto said. “Our district saw the value in teaching this and shifted things around in the budget and made it happen.”

The Colorado district was also helped by a partnership with Colorado-based electronics retailer Sparkfun Electronics. The company provided the district with tools it develops, plus Micro:bits, and offered continuous professional development for teachers.

Students in the Adams 12 Five Star schools are now using Micro:bits tools to learn about coding and other physical computing concepts.

The device is a small micro-controller board with 25 LED lights arranged in a square, two buttons, sensors, wireless communication, and a USB interface. It can also be connected to online apps where users can program the device.

Using the programmable LED lights, students learn how to use and code buttons on the micro-controller by using “if, then, else” statements to trigger the display of rock, paper, or scissors with the lights.

After programming the lights, students also code a number generator that makes the Micro:bit randomly select rock, paper or scissors when it’s shaken. For example, if 1 stands for rock, 2 for paper, and 3 for scissors, and the program randomly selects 2 when the Micro:bit is shaken, then the LED lights will display paper. When the students are done programming, they pair up and play the game with the Micro:bits.

“For kids, physical computing is an engagement piece,” Otto said. “Seeing their projects come to life is exciting for them. It helps them understand the power of computer science and how things work in the real world.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as ‘Physical Computing’ Links Computer Science, Hands-On Learning


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