What I learnt from a "hands-on" digital tech subject

In the last semester, I taught a new Year Nine elective at my school, "Out of this world: Technology to take us to Mars." I am writing this post to force myself to evaluate my practice and to document what I learnt from the experience.

DJI Robomaster EP Core, programmed as a simulation Mars Rover

What I learnt from running the course

I will start by detailing the learning from teaching the subject for the first time, this way you can get some value even if you're not interested in reading more of this post. Here is the list:
  1. Physical computing is worth the effort.
    Students learnt how the automatic lights in their classrooms and automatic doors in shopping centres worked. They saw how many areas of life are driven by a combination of devices and software.

  2. Physical computing is not a good way to teach coding.
    I had already become convinced of this from previous experiences. If you want kids to become good computer programmers, then teach them in a software-only environment. They will concentrate their time writing and debugging code, rather than fiddling with the electronics.

  3. Scaffold code reuse.
    I had been hoping that students would be able to reuse code between tutorials and to take code from one tutorial to their own project. They found this process challenging and I believe I needed to model this project more than I did. In fact, I think that they need a scaffolded activity where they nominate where they can find code that performs a specific function and then apply it in a slightly different context. This would then become a "template" for their work.

  4. Sound file management is the answer to life, the universe and everything!
    As with everything requiring programming, sloppily naming files and not knowing which folder your code is stored in, results in wasting a lot of time. I cannot stress this enough.

  5. You need a dedicated space.
    Students need to be able to peruse different devices and decide to try to use, say, a dust sensor. They also need to be able to continue building their projects from one lesson to the next. Students also need to make models out of cardboard, paper and various adhesives. For all of these reasons and more, you need to be able to use the same room with everything that they need in it. 

  6. Allocate more time to projects than you think they deserve.
    Students will feel the need to add colour to their cardboard. They'll work together rather than divide up tasks. You will want them to enjoy the experience, so save yourself and them the anguish of tight deadlines!

  7. Designate roles
    Yes, you want students to collaborate but there need to be separate responsibilities. I did not do this and I have learnt my lesson for next time! There needs to be a project manager and they need a checklist of things to verify periodically to be provided by the teacher. This will teach students a valuable skill and you won't be the one pushing them to finish or to get going on their writeup whilst someone decorates the model greenhouse.

  8. Bring an engineer to work!
    In a course like this, the word engineering will come up a few times. Most students don't really know what an engineer does. When I was asked the question, I was lucky to know a few former students who have gone into that field. Two of them, a chemical engineer and a structural engineer, were happy to appear via Zoom and explain to the girls what they did in their jobs. I hope to write a post on this experience too.
A major challenge in running this course was the combination of Covid and Influenza which made students miss many classes. A course that depends on access to equipment is hard to follow remotely.

Now, back to the content you would have expected to see at the top of this post.

Why this course

In addition to our current year 9 offerings, the school leaders asked us, last year, to introduce a new subject that would capture the imagination of our girls. 2022 was going to the be first year of a new structure that allowed more subject choices to our year 9 students.
A few of us got together and decided to construct a course that would be heavy on physical computing. The unifying theme for the learning activities would be the human colonisation of Mars.

Some course content

- Programming Arduino boards with sensors and actuators
- Spreadsheets for analysing data collected form sensors
- Some image recognition using Teachable Machine

The first project that the students completed in groups of two or three was an implementation of an automated greenhouse on Mars. Each group completed part of the requirements, e.g. An automated sprinkler system or automatic climate control. It is not too hard to detect the temperature and activate a heater when the temperature drops below a certain threshold.

Major project

The final five weeks of the semester were dedicated to a project to be built for NASA. The idea was that a habitation was required before humans could land on Mars. Each group of three students chose one project and built a prototype that would convince NASA that they were qualified to build the real thing. They presented their projects to a panel of "NASA representatives". The panel was made up of the principal, network manager, marketing professional and a STEM teacher. 

Here is a demonstration of a "robonaut" that would sort different materials sent to Mars:

Elizabeth explaining how the Robonaut works.
If she chooses to become an engineer in the future, she will be great a it.

One more thing!

My colleague and friend, Steven Francis, will also be teaching this same subject next semester. We both created materials but, truth be told, more of the ideas and tutorials came from him. I am grateful for everything I have learnt from Steven.

If you made it all the way to the end, I thank you too!


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