Recent years have seen tremendous growth in outreach programs aimed at bringing computer programming to children and young adults via in-class and extracurricular coding activities. Programs such as the Hour of Code and Girls who Code have introduced millions of young people to programming around the world. For this study, we explored how combining programming with interactive electronics hardware can create a more engaging and dynamic learning environment for some students than what programming alone can achieve.
In this paper, we describe an electrical engineering outreach effort in collaboration with the technology and engineering teacher at a local middle school. Beginning with an introduction to programming via the Hour of Code, we progressed to lessons utilizing the Sparkfun Electronics Digital Sandbox, an Arduino-compatible microcontroller board with numerous built-in sensors and outputs. Under the guidance of both a professor of electrical and computer engineering and their own technology teacher, the students learned about the relationship between electronics hardware and software via a series of hands-on activities that culminated in a final design project.
To understand the experiences of the students who participated in these activities and develop insights into the relationship between hardware and software and students’ learning outcomes, we administered a survey and conducted a focus group with the students. The students described an overall positive experience, and also appreciated the ability to connect coding with the interactivity provided by the microcontroller board. The students described deriving significant satisfaction out of relatively simple tasks like programming an LED light to blink or change color. The students also overwhelmingly felt that learning about the interconnections between hardware and software gave them an understanding and better appreciation of the complexity of the electronics and computer software they interact with on a daily basis. The students generally found the programming to be the most challenging part of the activity but also rewarding, but tended to indicate activities utilizing hardware as the most engaging activity they encountered.
Overall, the results of this study suggest that combined hardware and software educational activities can engage a wide number of students, help students understand the interconnectedness of these areas, and create a positive learning environment.
© 2016, American Society for Engineering Education, Proceedings of ASEE Annual Conference New Orleans, LA.
Salzman, Noah and Loo, Sin Ming. (2016). "Connecting Hardware and Software in a Middle School Engineering Outreach Effort-RTP". ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings, .