Top 5 Physical Computing Devices for the Classroom

Going beyond Beebots!

One of the most exciting aspects of teaching computing is the use of physical computing devices in the classroom. In the continual challenge to make learning relevant and real-world for learners, physical computing devices can really engage learners who otherwise may not see the point, and allow educators to setup projects and investigations which light up learners in a purposeful and fresh way.

However, there are so many devices available in the market, each with their own software, resources teaching guides and accessories, how do you choose the best direction for your classroom? After years of using many different physical devices in my classroom, I’ve curated a list of my top five that I believe every classroom can benefit from. Let’s take a look at each.

BBC micro:bit

There is really only one clear winner to my mind, for sheer prevalence of resources and accessories, kits and possibility. The BBC Micro:bit has been the backbone of my physical computing teaching for many years, and allows us as educators to create a wide range of opportunities that both push learning forward and solidify what is already known, but in a new context.

The BBC micro:bit is a pocket-sized computer that can be used to introduce students to the world of coding and computational thinking. Micro:bits are a single circuit board with a range of additional facilities joined to it. In this way it is a great first experience for learners as they can see everything – nothing is encased in a shell! With a grid of 25 red LED lights, two programmable buttons, and a variety of sensors, the micro:bit offers endless possibilities for creativity.

Features:

  • LED display for creating patterns, scrolling text, and more.
  • Speaker to play tunes you programme.
  • Built-in accelerometer, magnetometer, and Bluetooth.
  • Connects easily with other devices and sensors.

Educational Benefits

The micro:bit serves as a fantastic introduction to coding. Students can design games, create interactive stories, or even design wearable tech. The device promotes hands-on learning, allowing students to see the immediate results of their coding efforts.

Because micro:bit has reached a level of maturity within education now, there are a large number of resource and activity sites (I’ll explore those soon for us) that you can use to support your teaching. The micro:bit is incredibly extendable, by now having a wide range of third-party packs to make it into a vehicle, boat, tank, picture frame, wearable, etc. You will not run out of ways that the core device can be extended to suit different class projects and year groups.

Software

The micro:bit is programmed primarily via the browser on your device, using a micro:bit simulator. Once the learner believes their code is ready, then can download the single programme file to their micro:bit as if it were an external drive. The micro:bit will run that programme until another is added to replace it.

Classroom Practicalities

There is nothing really available that is so simple but so versatile. You can initially purchase a very small number of micro:bits, and learners can use the browser simulator to create their code, with you giving them a physical micro:bit to test it on once they are ready. In this way you can pass around a small number of devices but all learners remain engaged. This is a great way to gradually increase your set, while not delaying starting. If you have nothing, start with this.

BBC Micro:bit website – https://microbit.org/

Look at Micro:bit prices – Amazon affiliate link

Raspberry Crumble

The Raspberry Crumble is a fantastic bridge between the world of physical electronics and computer programming. As such, you ned to make sure learners have learnt about electrical circuits first. Once they have this knowledge however, the Crumble opens up a really exciting range of opportunities based on connecting lights, buzzers, motors and a range of sensors to the tiny device.

Like the Micro:bit, the Crumble is a single circuit board, easily visible and understandable for students. Micro:bits can add sensors via crocodile clips, but the Crumble takes this much further with multiple inputs and outputs to control several external devices in a single programme. Designed with education in mind, it offers a simplified approach to connecting lights, motors, and sensors, making it an ideal starting point for young learners.

Features:

  • Simple, user-friendly interface for beginners.
  • Compatible with a range of input and output devices.
  • No need for soldering; components can be connected using crocodile clips.

Educational Benefits

The Raspberry Crumble demystifies the process of creating interactive electronic projects. Students can easily see the connection between their code and the physical actions it produces, whether it’s lighting up an LED (spark) or spinning a motor. This immediate feedback is invaluable in reinforcing computational thinking concepts. Moreover, the device encourages experimentation, allowing students to tinker, iterate, and refine their creations, fostering a deep understanding of both electronics and programming.

Software

The Crumble software needs to be installed on a device, unlike the browser-based approach of the micro:bit. For this reason it can work better or worse for some teachers based on the devices they have available and the reliability of the wi-fi. The Crumble software can begin with drag and drop block coding and in this way is very similar to Scratch, Makecode and other Blockly style coding tools.

Classroom Practicalities

Unlike Micro:bit the Crumble must be connected in order to check the accuracy of the code learners have created. This means more crumbles are required than micro:bits (where the browser app is a simulator), as learners must be able to check and debug with the device throughout their coding process.

Raspberry Crumble website – https://redfernelectronics.co.uk

Look at Crumble prices – on Redfern’s website

Sphero

Sphero is a very different looking device for the classroom and home, and promises that it is more than just a robotic ball. The Sphero range of devices include a beebot-style car, but it is the spherical devices that we are really interested in here. I have found them a reliably robust and exciting alternative in school to the above devices, and well worth considering as part of your physical computing offer.

Features

  • Robust, waterproof design suitable for various terrains and even water.
  • Controlled and programmed via an app, compatible with various devices.
  • Multiple sensors including gyroscope, accelerometer, and LED lights.
  • Customisable skins and accessories to enhance the learning experience.

Educational Benefits

Sphero is not just about coding; it’s described by the makers as a multidisciplinary tool. Students can engage in activities that teach physics concepts as they observe the Sphero’s motion, or they can delve into mathematics by calculating its speed or trajectory. The device’s interactive nature makes abstract concepts much more tangible. For instance, when students code the Sphero to move in a square or circle, they’re not just learning to program; they’re understanding geometry in action. Because the Sphero can move, this opens up some of the shape learning in maths that are not possible with (naturally) static devices such as Micro:bit and Crumble.


Software

The Sphero software covers browser and mobile / tablet apps, making it modern and versatile option. I have found schools can generally run this on whatever devices they have, where as some of the other options listed can be less versatile.

Classroom Practicalities

Use the floor or make a barricade on a desk! The app is a remote control as well as a programming tool, so learners can be known to ‘take a break’ by manually whizzing them round the classroom. Clear instruction on this will resolve this possible headache.

Sphero website – https://sphero.com/

Look at Sphero prices – Amazon Affiliate link

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi is a small, affordable series of computers that students can use to learn programming. They are versatile, powerful, and have a vast online community, making the Pi a favourite among many educators.

Features

  • Runs multiple programming languages.
  • Connects to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
  • Expansive range of compatible accessories.

Educational Benefits

Raspberry Pi not only teaches students the basics of programming but also offers insights into computer hardware. They can build their own mini-computers, create music, design games, and much more. It’s a device that grows with the student’s skills.

Software

The Raspberry Pi can run a number of software choices, and signifies a move into text programming proper. It can also run multiple instructions, unlike the previous devices, which only run the most recent programme they have been given, and in this way is more of what would be considered a ‘proper computer’.

Classroom Practicalities

The Pi is generally seen as a device best suited to the top of key stage two, and into key stage three. It is also often used as part of an after school club provision at KS2. This is of course not to say it can not be used elsewhere, but it usually requires teachers to give of more time in learning the programming skills for the Pi which are above that of the other devices I have discussed today.

Raspberry Pi website – https://www.raspberrypi.com/

Look at Pi prices – Amazon affiliate link

Makey Makey

An invention kit for everyone! Makey Makey allows students to turn everyday objects into touchpads. Think playing a piano with bananas or controlling a video game with a clay controller!

Features

  • Easy setup with no software installation.
  • Works with any conductive material.
  • Encourages out-of-the-box thinking.

Educational Benefits

Makey Makey fosters creativity and innovation. Students learn about circuits and conductivity while also understanding the basics of computer programming. It’s a fun, interactive way to merge the physical and digital worlds.

Classroom Practicalities

This is a really different offer to any of the above devices. It requires a commitment to making the time and space needed, but gives a different level of creative opportunity to learners that is well worth exploring.

Makey Makey website – https://makeymakey.com/

Look at Makey Makey prices – Amazon affiliate link

What Next?

Physical computing devices bridge the gap for learners between the abstract world of code and the tangible world we live in. They provide hands-on, interactive ways to learn about technology, programming, and problem-solving and should definitely be included in your curriculum.

Over the coming weeks I will be following up with part two of this device review and also a software review and signposting many resource and lesson ideas to support whatever devices you have or are purchasing.


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