Thought Leadership

Why Teachers Need to Incorporate Physical Computing into Computer Science Lessons

Computer Science Education Week (CS Ed Week) is a time where educators around the world will host an Hour of Code to get their students learning the important engineering, coding and computer science skills we all know are needed for the jobs of the future. Many of the lesson plans taught in computer science courses and during CS Ed Week have students coding and programming via computer games and online, which means they are only interacting with a computer screen. Although an important part of the computer science learning experience, there’s even more opportunity when you add in the physical elements.

You read and hear about how we live in a digital world, but, in fact, technology is changing not only how we interact with software and mobile apps, but also how we interact with everyday objects in the physical world. Today we use touch technology, cloud computing and voice commands to turn on lights, unlock doors and keep an eye on our homes from anywhere. Technology shapes how we live and work and is continuing to change at a rapid pace. That means students today need to understand not only how to code online, but also how computer science and coding connect to the tangible objects in the world around them.

Along with those hard skills of coding and engineering, students need to build soft skills that will help them compete in an ever-changing job market. By getting hands-on with an object, interacting with it and coding it to move, students are able to learn by doing and develop resilience and confidence in the process. According to a recent poll from Harris Interactive, three out of four educators say anxiety and lack of confidence hinders learning among their students. However, teachers, parents and students all agree that hands-on learning experiences help build confidence, and 87 percent of students say they tend to remember topics for longer when they learn via hands-on projects. Including physical computing in the classroom adds real-world experiences through building models, prototyping and investigating concepts. And because the objects are programmed, students also develop skills and knowledge in computational thinking like decomposing, generalizing, evaluating, abstracting and thinking algorithmically.

The Benefits Beyond the Screen

With physical computing, students can experience computing in a hands-on way that allows them to design and create interactive objects. By using digital programming to control a tangible object, the learning process is enhanced through a constructionist approach. Constructionism emphasizes learning as an active process, in which people build ideas or knowledge structures, both physically and mentally. These design projects are often interdisciplinary, encourage pluralistic thinking, encourage empathy and engage students as active participants. Constructionist environments can also help students develop autonomy of their learning through the creation of personally meaningful projects.

These types of experiences lead to students who are better prepared for the future world. According to recent polls, the most in demand jobs over the next few years are in the areas of application software development, medical services and nursing. All fields that require computing skills in different ways. Students preparing for these fields benefit from experiencing computing and computer science in their education in both an online and physical way to ensure they are ready as they enter the workforce. This is furthered by the top skills employers are looking for according to the World Economic Forum, which focuses on innovation, creativity and hands-on learning specifically.

Ways to Include Physical Computing in Your Classroom

Tackling real-world problems is an engaging way to bring physical computing into the classroom. Sensors, motors and output displays allow interaction with the real world. Using sensors and an open source microcontroller, students can create an automatic watering system for household plants or use sensors and conductive thread working together to create wearable clothing that reacts to the environment. Adding the physical aspect to computing opens many new learning possibilities for students.

In another example, a free lesson plan for LEGO Education SPIKE Prime challenges students to design a prosthetic arm using sensors, motors and LEGO bricks. This pushes students to combine their design engineering skills and computational thinking skills to create a physical object that solves a challenge for someone. As students iterate to find the best solution, they push their ability by understanding how hardware and software interact and can have a practical application in the medical industry.

Utilizing physical computing in the classroom allows students to explore new careers they might not experience or think require STEAM skills. Use this year’s Computer Science Education Week to think about how to incorporate physical computing into your lesson plans and help students go beyond the computer screen and get hands-on.

About the Authors

Dr. Jenny Nash serves as the Senior Educational Program Manager for LEGO Education North America, where she provides direction and leadership in delivering meaningful education opportunities for districts. Previously, Jenny was the Director of Clinical Experiences and Director of Professional Development Schools at Marshall University, where she conducted STEM outreach and programming for K-12 schools in addition to working with student teacher candidates. She was also a general science teacher for a middle and high school in West Virginia, where she focused on provided blended learning and project-based learning experiences for her students. Jenny is a long-time member of the National Science Teachers Association.

Dr. Leanna Prater serves as a solution engineer at LEGO Education, where she helps provide content area expertise, thought leadership, and strategic solutions to support activities specific to the instructional goals and program needs of LEGO Education customers. Prior to joining LEGO® Education, she taught in the elementary grades and served as a district technology resource teacher for Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, KY. She currently serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown College where she teaches a graduate class on coding for teachers. As an advocate for STEM and computer science for all, she supports classroom teachers and students in areas such as robotics and creative computing and helps organize Scratch Educator meetups in her area.