Supporting learning physical computing through design activities

Melissa Kaivo

Students and teachers encounter new challenges as many countries have decided to implement computational thinking and programming into the compulsory education curriculum to respond to the skills required in the future’s digital world.
Computational thinking is nowadays a fundamental skill for problem-solving, and to successfully implement it to education, new approaches and methods need to be developed. My thesis explored the use of a physical computing platform called Arduino as a means of introducing computational thinking to university students.

The idea for this thesis started from the problem I noticed with my friends who were studying to become teachers. The new approach to introducing computational thinking and programming in primary school curriculum required them to learn how to teach programming. At the same time, they thought that universities did not offer enough support for them to develop the required competence. Courses were a few day introductions to different tools like Scratch and Bee-Bot, and the focus was more on what is the tool rather than understanding how to use it to develop children’s computational thinking and programming skills, or how to explore different technologies present in our everyday lives. In my paper, I investigated the challenges that students new to Arduino have when learning physical computing and explore ways to support learning activities.

The prototype for this study was a visual support material that eases the challenges and shifts the focus from the process to design. This learning material was a set of foldable cards that students could use to design their project without having any knowledge of how to program or wire different physical computing components. After the design phase, students could open the cards and learn the skills required to complete their projects. The results were derived from interviews with teachers and teacher assistants, and from observations done in Arduino workshops held in four different universities. Results have implications for the benefits of design activities as a method for teaching computational thinking to university students. Findings show that design activities can provide an enjoyable, meaningful, and more feasible approach for everyone to learn physical computing and computational thinking.

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