In this year’s Engineering, Design & Technology (EDT) course, all Upper School students are learning about how to use electronics in the design and control of robots. According to iLab manager and course instructor Cam McNall, “For Shore’s sixth through ninth graders, EDT is a real journey in electronics and coding.”
Learning in the course happens through the use of the BBC micro:bit, a pocket-sized computer that’s designed to teach the basics of how software and hardware work together. It has an LED light display, buttons, sensors, and many input/output features that, when programmed, let it interact with the world. “Before programming the micro:bit,” says McNall, “we first practice recognizing the causal relationships in coding (if/then) and how to specify and control the inputs needed for the ‘if’ side of coded commands.” Imagine the statement, “If it is dark, then turn on a light.” “In the course,” explains McNall, “students learn how to break this statement into logical components that would let a computer understand what to do. For example, we must establish the difference between light and dark: what illumination level is considered dark, and on what spectrum is light evaluated?”
Once students are able to understand and fit together the puzzle-like pieces needed to program a computer, they’re ready to create the code that controls the micro:bit. “The micro:bit can receive a wide array of possible inputs, from push buttons to accelerometers to light and sound sensors and more,” says McNall. Students use a “breadboard,” a thin plastic board that allows electronic parts to be wired together, to develop prototypes of electronic circuits to communicate between these components and the micro:bit. The micro:bit then manages the response to each input, ranging from displaying video and lighting up LEDs to rotating motors and more.
The skills students learn in the course are cumulative and, as they continue to practice over the course of the year, they will begin to recognize situations where a human user needs to control the computer, versus those where a robotic system could use sensors to react to its surroundings autonomously. The end goal is for students to design and build their own robots to compete with each other. “This is a fun journey that requires students to use their Design Thinking skills to develop a deeper understanding of coding, robotics, and electronic control systems. I can’t wait to see what our kids come up with as the year progresses!”