MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) defines the term physical computing as:
“Physical computing involves interacting with the physical world in addition to a screen. You take in data from light, motion, or temperature sensors, and control devices such as motors, speakers, and lights. Physical computing is fun, engaging, and makes learning to code easier and more understandable.”
A great example of a physical computing device is the micro:bit. The BBC micro:bit is a pocket-sized computer that introduces you to how software and hardware work together and is designed to enable children to get engaged and creative with technology and coding.
Samuel Papert (a renowned mathematician, computer scientist and educator) proposed that people build knowledge most effectively when the user/student is engaged in the construction of something, often a tangible, visible thing – so whether it’s building a car made from Lego, or displaying the current room temperature on a micro:bit, the user/student will have gained knowledge from taking part in the process and have something to show for their time and effort.
In today’s classrooms, the adoption of physical computing can be much more positive than a more traditional screen-based/workbook experience because it more readily supports and stimulates open-ended creativity, rather than causing frustration through restriction of prescriptive closed exercises. This, in turn, produces a broader and deeper engagement in computer science learning activities.
Why is it important?
In 2017, the BBC surveyed year-seven students in the United Kingdom who had been given a micro:bit physical computing device (see https://www.microbit.org/impact/research/#bbc-2017 and found that, among girls in particular, their predisposition to study computer science in future increased by 70%.
Equally, those who represented a cross-section of students currently under-represented by computer science education programs, all reacted positively to a physical computing education approach.
There are also opportunities for cross-curricular learning as the device can be used as a tool in other subjects. As a result, physical computing has been shown to broaden appeal in coding whilst deepening engagement and understanding.