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From Embedded Systems to Physical Computing: Challenges of the "Digital World" in Secondary Computer Science Education (PhD Thesis) 🇺🇸


Przybylla, Mareen: From Embedded Systems to Physical Computing: Challenges of the “Digital World” in Secondary Computer Science Education. Dissertation, Universität Potsdam, 2018



Physical computing covers the design and realization of interactive objects and installations and allows learners to develop concrete, tangible products of the real world, which arise from their imagination. This can be used in computer science education to provide learners with interesting and motivating access to the different topic areas of the subject in constructionist and creative learning environments. However, if at all, physical computing has so far mostly been taught in afternoon clubs or other extracurricular settings. Thus, for the majority of students so far there are no opportunities to design and create their own interactive objects in regular school lessons.

Despite its increasing popularity also for schools, the topic has not yet been clearly and sufficiently characterized in the context of computer science education. The aim of this doctoral thesis therefore is to clarify physical computing from the perspective of computer science education and to adequately prepare the topic both content-wise and methodologically for secondary school teaching. For this purpose, teaching examples, activities, materials and guidelines for classroom use are developed, implemented and evaluated in schools.

In the theoretical part of the thesis, first the topic is examined from a technical point of view. A structured literature analysis shows that basic concepts used in physical computing can be derived from embedded systems, which are the core of a large field of different application areas and disciplines. Typical methods of physical computing in professional settings are analyzed and, from an educational perspective, elements suitable for computer science teaching in secondary schools are extracted, e. g. tinkering and prototyping. The investigation and classification of suitable tools for school teaching show that microcontrollers and mini computers, often with extensions that greatly facilitate the handling of additional components, are particularly attractive tools for secondary education. Considering the perspectives of science, teachers, students and society, in addition to general design principles, exemplary teaching approaches for school education and suitable learning materials are developed and the design, production and evaluation of a physical computing construction kit suitable for teaching is described.

In the practical part of this thesis, with “My Interactive Garden”, an exemplary approach to integrate physical computing in computer science teaching is tested and evaluated in different courses and refined based on the findings in a design-based research approach. In a series of workshops on physical computing, which is based on a concept for constructionist professional development that is developed specifically for this purpose, teachers are empowered and encouraged to develop and conduct physical computing lessons suitable for their particular classroom settings. Based on their in-class experiences, a process model of physical computing teaching is derived. Interviews with those teachers illustrate that benefits of physical computing, including the tangibility of crafted objects and creativity in the classroom, outweigh possible drawbacks like longer preparation times, technical difficulties or difficult assessment. Hurdles in the classroom are identified and possible solutions discussed.

Empirical investigations in the different settings reveal that “My Interactive Garden” and physical computing in general have a positive impact, among others, on learner motivation, fun and interest in class and perceived competencies.

Finally, the results from all evaluations are combined to evaluate the design principles for physical computing teaching and to provide a perspective on the development of decision-making aids for physical computing activities in school education.

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