Every afternoon after a regular school day, a group of girls from inner city schools come to Roedean School (SA) to take lessons in Maths, Science and English. In the winter term I take a group of grade 10s for coding & robotics classes. We use the micro:bit chip, which has a handy online platform for programming the chip at https://microbit.org/. None of the students have had any prior experience of coding or robotics,
After an initial lesson on the platform and learning about how to use the blocks together with event handlers, I introduced the robots (in this case Maqueens from DFRobot). We went over some code for getting a robot to move forward using the PRIMM method to predict, test and modify the code to get the code to work. Stduents were working in groups of two or three. Each group had a chip and robot to use to test the code they wrote. When a group could make the robot move forward for a length of time, I asked them to make the robot turn 90 degrees and move forward again.
Because making a turn relies on tinkering with motor speed and duration of the move, this is no easy task and requires repeated attempts. Soon the room was full of groups either modifying their code or shouting in excitement as the robot’s movements got closer and closer to the desired result. After the initial input I spent most of my time moving from group to group encouraging them to try again, reminding them to switch off batteries between tries and making the ocassional suggestion where students got stuck.
I have seldom seen high school girls quite so excited about anything. Of all the different combinations of platforms and robots I have tried, the simplicity of the micro:bit platform paired with a suitable robot seems to work best for this type of task. In the past I have found that girls tend to shy away from failure, and tinkering with speed/time settings does not usually sit well with them. There are repeated failures before an appropriate combination is reached. An essential part of developing a tinkering disposition is to accept the frustration of repeated near misses. I have seen classes start to loose interest if the process of modifying and testing is too onerous. The micro:bit platform allows one to pair a chip with a computer using a USB cable and then all one needs to do is click on the download button to update the code on the chip. I leave the USB cable on the chip so it curls in the air like a rat’s tail. This allows a very quick turn-around time and if combined with a bit of a competitive edge, encourages a sense of urgency!
It seems to me that whatever coding and robotics platforms you choose it really needs to be as effortless as possible. The sweat should be in the coding, not in flashing the chip. It also helps to have as many robots and chips as you can available to make sure no-one has to wait for a chance to test their code.
By the way, this post has not been paid for by the micro:bit organisation. This is genuine, and unremunerated enthusiasm on my part!