Regard this article as a counterblast to my previous article in which I said robotics (and other kinds of physical computing) are a waste of time.
To be clear, I meant that in a very literal sense, not in the sense that building devices and then programming are not worth doing at all. But if you have to get through a curriculum, having groups of three pupils spending half an hour discovering that if you type FWD 10 (or something similar) on a screen moves a contraption forward by 10 units, you’ve wasted about 29 minutes for each person. Why? Because you could have told them it would do that, demonstrated it on a whiteboard or<gasp!> have the pupils use an old-fashioned program like Logo to find it out for themselves in 30 seconds.
However, if you’re determined to have your pupils program physical devices, there are ways and means of making the activity more useful and less time-wasteful. Here are some suggestions.
Use ready-made objects
(Before you discard this article in disgust while exclaiming “Micro:bit?”, “Raspberry Pi?”, bear with me: I’m getting onto those. Please be patient.)
Building your own may be exciting, but (a) it’s not in the Computing Programme of Study, (b) it doesn’t teach programming, and (c) bits can go missing.
Don’t expect suppliers to have anything sensible to say about that last point. After a supplier showed me a build-your-own product at the 2019 Bett show, I asked him how much it would cost to replace bits that go missing. “Oh, that couldn’t happen”, he replied somewhat optimistically, “because the box has slots to hold the bits, so you can see immediately if the slots aren’t full, which tells you that there are bits missing.” That didn’t answer my question at all.
Buying ready-made objects skirts around all such difficulties, and enables you to get straight on to the programming activities.
Team up with the D & T department
It might be possible for the Design and Technology pupils to build stuff as part of their curriculum. Look at the Design and Technology National Curriculum, and you’ll see that designing, making and evaluating objects have to be covered. Maybe you can forge a partnership.
Start a maker club
Perhaps some of the making could be done after school by enthusiastic pupils who don’t mind loaning their creations for use in lessons. Good luck with that, but you never know.
Work with a local company or college
It might be possible to acquire both equipment and expertise by joining up with a third party.
Use a problem-solving and project-based learning approach
What was wrong with the scenario I described at the beginning of this article? First, there was no problem to solve: why would anyone want to move a toy car or robot 10 centimetres? It was pointless and contextless. OK, so it was a training exercise, I get that. It was still a waste of time, because most of the people in each group of three had nothing to do for most of the time. If a project-based learning approach is adopted, each person in the team has an assigned role, with stuff to be getting on with while someone else is doing something else. This is where projects involving Micro:bits and similar items can be so rewarding. See, for example, the details of the 2019 Raspberry Pi competition winning entries.
Make a rota
Back in the 1990s I was an ICT advisor, and the schools I worked in were cutting edge. Not only did they have computer labs, they even had one, and sometimes two, computers in each classroom. Wow! So what did we do when we wanted to teach the kids things to do on a computer? We showed them how to do it in the computer lab or in a classroom demonstration, and then we had a rota system going on. Each lesson, one or two pupils worked on the computer(s) in the classroom. Did the other 28 kids just sit around waiting for their turn? Of course not! They had other work to do, or the same work but not using a computer. By the end of each term, each pupil had had the experience of learning and practising computer-based skills.
If you can only afford one robot or other major device, work out a system by which every pupil gets to program it and experiment with it.
Make your lessons about more than the device
I think it’s ok to devote lots of time to physical computing if you make sure that lessons cover more than connecting bits of kit and entering some commands. A problem-based approach lends itself to learning other aspects of the Computing curriculum. The Computing Programme of Study requires, amongst other things, that pupils:
can evaluate and apply information technology, including new or unfamiliar technologies, analytically to solve problems
are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technology
Use digital champions
One of the problems that Heads of Computing and ICT face, in my experience, is lack of technician help. Perhaps getting the kit ready and making sure it all comes back are prime roles for keen groups of pupils.