In Hewitt’s Programming and Robotics course, ninth and tenth graders learn how to create computer animations, design for digital fabrication, and program electronic circuitry, all with code. Because this introductory course focuses on hands-on projects that are grounded in real-world contexts, students start learning by doing at their very first class meeting, quickly making connections between the projects they are working on in class and the systems and electronics they use on a daily basis.
This year, the course began with a robotics project that invited students to learn how common electronic devices work by taking them apart and studying their individual components and circuits. Eager to start the work of tearing down a broken mini-fridge, paper shredder, and microwave, the class first came together to review safety procedures for the many tools found in the Hewitt Innovation Lab. For this project, Programming and Robotics students expanded on these safety protocols to learn how to responsibly deconstruct the specific devices they would be investigating. For some members of the class, this meant understanding voltage levels in order to know which elements of their devices were and were not safe to handle. For others, this involved learning how to protect themselves while handling sharp parts, such as the blades of the paper shredder.
Guided by their safety protocols, the students began working in teams to carefully disassemble their devices, a process which led to several thrilling moments of discovery. As the pair working on the paper shredder recalled, “We used large and tiny screwdrivers to take the shredder apart, being careful of its many sharp edges. It was very exciting when we first popped off the device’s lid! We could see the reverse side of the spikes that shred the paper as well as the gear configuration and a huge motor.” The team tearing down the microwave was similarly enthusiastic about the chance to see inside their device. “One of the most rewarding parts of this activity was taking off the top of the microwave and seeing all of the circuitry and other pieces inside...and then being able to look at all of the parts and see how they connect to make the microwave work.”
After successfully taking apart their devices, the teams identified each individual component and drew detailed diagrams to demonstrate their understanding of how these parts worked together. Again, the students were struck by a sense of wonder and awe as they determined the function of each component in their devices. One student wondered about a square white plate with red and black wires running into it that she found in the mini-fridge. Prompted by her curiosity, she looked up the plate using an ID number printed on its surface and was excited to discover that she had found a thermoelectric Peltier module, which held the key to the appliance’s ability to both heat and cool. The pair of students working on the mini-fridge reflected, “It was challenging to determine what each piece was and what they did, but it was also exciting to figure out how the mini-fridge worked, specifically how it was able to heat and cool. Once we figured out it used a combination of a heat sink, fan, and thermoelectric cooling Peltier module, we were amazed.” Each member of the class soon came to realize that the mysterious electronic devices they always viewed as merely functional were in fact both accessible and interesting. The experience of taking these devices apart and learning about their components introduced the class to a world of science and engineering that had always been around them, but was previously hidden and invisible.
Once they had finished investigating the basic functions of the parts that made up their devices, students chose a single component to research more deeply and presented their findings to the rest of the class. Students were able to direct their own learning by focusing their research project on electronics topics that were of genuine interest to them. After taking deep dives into circuit board relays and switches, magnetrons, the thermoelectric peltier module, and heat sinks, the students became teachers, excitedly sharing their new expertise with one another and answering questions about their respective devices. As they made connections between the inner workings of common appliances and their knowledge of electricity, elements, and electromagnetism, it was clear that this hands-on robotics project had empowered the students to approach and understand complex ideas in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and engineering.
The understanding, as one student observed, that appliances had “a circuit board...upon which the circuit is built,” helped them make the transition to building their own circuits. Using breadboards — small bases used for prototyping electronics — and small components such as LEDs, resistors, buttons, and potentiometers (rotary dials), they began to guide electricity along hand-made circuits and programmed behaviors with a microcontroller, a programmable interface for electronics.
With the transition to remote learning in March, it seemed that such hands-on work would be impossible to continue and our course’s curriculum pivoted to programming graphics and animation. However, the students missed building circuitry, so I sent them each a kit to make their own circuits from home. After seeing the complexity of integrated circuitry in their appliances, it was important for them to make their own circuits, discovering for themselves how a resistor maintains a proper level of current for an LED, or how a capacitor can store voltage like a battery. Many of the components of the circuitry kits were actually salvaged from appliances just like the ones the class had torn down, such as microswitches from microwave door mechanisms and buttons and small motors from old printers. Working from home, the students followed example circuit diagrams to make LEDs light up and motors spin and shared with one another pictures and videos of their independent explorations in bringing components to life with electricity.
Throughout this project, Programming and Robotics students engaged in several meaningful and purposeful ways of learning. They began with the invaluable hands-on experience of tearing down a device and solving the puzzle of how each of its parts worked in concert before moving on to conduct research that was propelled by their own individual interests. While presenting their research they asserted their roles as leaders in the classroom, as they had indeed become experts on their respective research topics. Inspired by all of this, the students eagerly experimented with building their own circuits using some of the same components they had encountered tearing down their appliances and experienced themselves as electrical engineers. From exploring the hidden world engineered around them to engineering their own circuits, these students were empowered to be active learners who can make and build technologies themselves.