Grand steps to Science Ambassador. What would be efficacious to teach simple computing and coding?

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Grand steps to Science Ambassador. What would be efficacious to teach simple computing and coding?


A newly retired University graduate friend got in touch about educational toys, suitable for grandchildren around 7 years old. What would be efficacious to teach simple computing and coding concepts with electronics similar to what we had learnt when we were younger.


Technology moves forward

My father’s first radio had a homemade coil, a rectifier, variable air plate capacitor and a telephone earpiece (NB no power supply).

My Christmas electronics kit had a printed circuit board & plugin components function akin to those previously listed. In both there was something magical to pulling sound out of nowhere. For my kids the magic was the Texas Speak & Spell, other distractions included Gameboy+Tetris. A few years on & courtesy of miniaturization I purchased a Science Museum SamLabs Inventor kit: 1 App + 4 Wireless Blocks & five activities. It had cost me around £75.

To quote him: “ The grandchildren have been round today (Mother’s Day) and absolutely loved playing with the SAM Labs modules. We had one of Seb’s superhero figures spinning round on the end of a ruler driven by a wheeled motor (with buzzer sounding) activated by the button, with speed control effected by varying the distance between the led and the light sensor.

The kids were squabbling over holding the modules — which is a good sign of engagement with the product!” The augmentation of invisible technology by a simple programming interface seems to be a winner. It remains to be seen whether their venture into the School market will be a success.

Sam Labs

Other approaches are available

One reason I have for investigating this subject is a semi-regular weekly STEM Ambassador (I am also a Barefoot Computing one) spot where I try and engage about a dozen upper stage primary children in an after school Science club. For some time, in the background, I have been trying computer options, for such as data collection — looking to update my successful weather stations.

I have invested in Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Microbit, Chibitronics & Microbit. The former is primarily a programming tool and initially gave me concerns about attaching such as motors to its potentially fragile processor. The older Arduino can be used as an interface adapter but despite my love of C I felt this was not the language for Primary kids. I have now, courtesy of a Maplin Sale, obtained Kitronik’s Inventor’s Kit for the Microbit.

The tutorial book is particularly good guiding you through the programming, first with the Microsoft Block editor, derived from the Scratch visual programming environment, followed by a (Javascript) text option approach. On the hardware side the experiments employ simple configurations of the parts provided.

However the HeadTeacher (my wife) has given up waiting for me to scale up and has hired in an excellent local company, Digital Maker CIC‏ formerly Awesome Tech, who deliver using their own hardware so they do not have to have any dialog with the school IT.


Conclusion: Know your Audience

There are a few steps of complexity moving up from Grandchildren-minder to school Science volunteer.

For a start, there is cost: my budget limit is about £10. I recently laid out £5 for a Bubble Science construction kit from the toy aisle of John Lewis — would I have bought a dozen?

Did I need to? Answer: possibly not, as such was appropriate for one pair in the class and I am not sure others would have appreciated the opportunity, but in fact they never got the chance.

There is a dynamic in a class when in a chemistry activity, such as soap making, various students can be given different roles.

When computers screens are added sometimes this fixes the individuals in places; maybe this will change as screens get smaller and more flexible. Finally, fun is key but not the be-all.

At school, you need a thesis for your teaching: flashing lights altered by some process are interesting but there should be an objective for the lesson, some knowledge and maybe skill needs to be transmitted.

Written by Paul Martin 

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