Let's Get Physical

Both the Computing curriculum (mandatory in LA funded schools since 1st September 2014) and the technology curriculum require pupils to engage in what is sometimes called 'physical computing'. 'Physical computing' is when we create a programme on a computer that controls an external device - older readers may remember running Flowol on a pc to control the lights of a cardboard cut out lighthouse.

Most KS2 pupils (and their teachers) have experienced using Scratch to create a program that moves the ‘sprite’ around the screen. They will have debugged their programmes (found and fixed errors). Most will have used repetition (the repeat block), sequence (lots of instructions in a particular order) and selection (use of the ‘if’ block). The use of electrical components in the Technology Curriculum was a part of the previous science curriculum so hopefully everyone is fairly up to speed with placing a battery, bulb, switch circuit inside a cardboard tube with a bit of coloured film over one end to make a torch.


Now it’s time to move on, to explore the exciting world of physical computing and crack ‘including controlling physical systems’, ‘using various forms of input and output’ (Computing) and ‘applying the understanding of computing to program, monitor and control their products’ (Technology). It used to be difficult and/or expensive to link a computer to an external pupil-made device. You either needed to purchase a ‘control box’ (expensive) or to get involved in fiddly electronics (difficult). You also needed to use the bespoke programming language for your specific control box or something like Python.

Even the fabulous Raspberry Pi failed to make physical computing an easy option for non-technical teachers or classes of 10 year olds. What is needed is the ability to write a program in Scratch (or something very similar), to connect the computer to the controller via a USB and for the controller to be cheap, robust and easy to wire up. Thankfully there are now several options available including Codebug, Crumble and GEMMA. See our review here Over the next few posts Kathy will be sharing ideas for using each of these controllers in projects suitable for upper KS2.

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