The micro:bit foundation present some research findings which look quite encouraging when it comes to using physical computing as an introduction to Computer Science here:

  • 90% of students said the micro:bit showed them that anyone can code.
  • 86% of students said the micro:bit made Computer Science more interesting.
  • 70% more girls said they would choose Computing as a school subject after using the micro:bit.
  • 85% of teachers agree it has made ICT/Computer Science more enjoyable for their students.
  • Half of teachers who’ve used the micro:bit say they now feel more confident as a teacher, particularly those who say they’re not very confident in teaching Computing.

They also link to this Computer Science for innovators and Makers curriculum which links the following:

Female students, in particular, show greater understanding of computer science concepts when programs and code produce immediate, tangible results. The physical nature of making these interactive systems creates a meaningful and engaging learning experience that greatly increases engagement among girls in computer science education.

Although the 2nd reference may be independent, it's not easy to tell. Are there any other studies I can refer to? Looking particularly at benefits in engagement or diversity.

Although the first reference does indicate that teachers also found that using (or being trained to use) the micro:bit felt more confident, I intended to ask specifically about student engagement.

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    $\begingroup$ So, 86% said the micro:bit made CS more interesting? Compared to what. It sounds like every exit survey from every CS program ever. Half the teachers feel more confident? Did they compare this to any other group of teachers that used any other set of resources? $\endgroup$ – Mike Zamansky Oct 8 '17 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeZamansky That is what I was going to say. My guess is compared to ICT. ICT was a mess, so I am glad we have an improvement. If you go to the CAS or other microbit training events, then I would expect improvements like this. The CAS events are very good. I would attribute most of the gain to the training. The microbits also add some value, and are cheep. But you still need a full size computer (I don't think you need an internet connection, to their compiler farm, any more. But am not sure). $\endgroup$ – ctrl-alt-delor Oct 8 '17 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeZamansky, exactly - the research was maybe loaded, hence the question. Stronger evidence would be nice. $\endgroup$ – Sean Houlihane Oct 8 '17 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ @ctrl-alt-delor A phone will do, anything with a browser (or terminal, for python). The compiler runs in the browser, but you need to have it in cache. Interesting point on the training - don't know how this compares to other sessions that are available. I'll clarify that this Q is about students. $\endgroup$ – Sean Houlihane Oct 8 '17 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ Start with the big picture. Don’t make it about coding, or wiring diagrams, or blinking lights. Make it about helping to change the world. All kids want to change the world. Develop that big picture and then work backwards to the blinking led. A blinking LED is about sustainability and a reduction in the production of greenhouse gases because an LED can appear to be on when it is off. If it is on for half the time and off for half the time then it is saving 50% of the power needed to run it. See: iearn.org $\endgroup$ – Arcanium Oct 9 '17 at 3:59

There are many academic articles reporting high engagement, especially among students underrepresented in computing, using physical computing. https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=physical+computing+education . Most of them lack a controlled study design. That doesn't mean they don't provide evidence however. For example, from Peppler 2013:

The capacity for e-textiles to diversify participation was first documented by Leah Buechley and Benjamin Mako Hill,2 who discovered that while men created the majority of traditional Arduino projects posted on Vimeo, YouTube, Flickr, and other sites (85 percent), women created most of the LilyPad Arduino projects (65 percent). What is striking about this comparison is that both types of projects share the same microprocessor and are programmed in the same language. The researchers suggested that the gender discrepancy could be due to some combination of the tools and materials used (insulated wire versus conductive thread to make connections between components), the construction practices employed (soldering versus sewing), and the nature of the products (robots versus interactive quilts).

To understand whether changing these factors could significantly alter classroom culture in a similar way, we implemented a series of e-textile experiments in middle school settings where we closely observed how gender dynamics played out. From videotaped observations of subjects working in mixed-gender pairs, we found that both boys and girls equally engaged in e-textile activity, as evidenced by body language, gaze, talk-on-task, and other indicators, but girls tended to play a greater leadership role. The projects were positioned in front of the girls 81 percent of the time; the girls also spent 58 percent of the time directing activity, troubleshooting, and deciding next steps and made only 39 percent of the requests for help from teachers and peers. We found that this early leadership was predictive of having more sophisticated command of the technology in subsequent projects, requiring less troubleshooting and assistance from others.

That said, probably wise to heed the central advice of Kicking Butt in Computer Science: abandon gender difference as the underlying theory in what works, and emphasize instead a high value on diverse interests and on applications that positively impact people's lives.


You are asking a question that is difficult to answer. There are many reasons. The situation you cite uses physical computing, true, but it uses it in a specific way. That larger context probably explains much if not most of the improvement in engagement. Without independent research and just guessing, I think that very many other approaches that have some of those same features would show the same sorts of improvements without the physical computing element. Let me try to list a few of them.

  • The classes are for youngsters and seem to be like a "summer camp" at which it is natural to have fun. The example projects are designed to be fun, and a bit wacky - banana keyboard, ...

  • The projects seem to be designed to be motivating, but that can happen with other sorts of systems than physical computing. Scratch, for example has put a lot of thought into this, as have the people in the CS Unplugged community.

  • The students work together in teams, I think. This is a strong motivator all by itself. I don't know if the teams are same-sex or not, but that is also sometimes a boost to motivation, depending on the overall environment.

  • The teachers seem to be well trained in the subject at hand.

So, to ask if Physical Computing, by itself, is motivating, you need to separate out the other factors. I assume that if used badly by an untrained and unmotivating teacher there would be little improvement. On the other hand, the environment itself, if supportive, will likely lead to increased motivation.

Another dimension should also be considered: motivated for what? I think that the goal is to get kids interested in computing generally, but that may not actually happen. You might see motivation for only projects that include the physical manipulation aspects, though that isn't a bad thing. When I was a kid you could get a kit that let you build a simple transistor radio with your own (little) hands. It was fun, and motivating, but not for radio itself, or even for electronics. For me, at least, it just motivated me to ask questions, for which I was already well known (i.e. a pest).

Don't take this post as skepticism about physical computing itself, but think about the whole environment, not just the most obvious aspect of it.

Finally, an environment in which the teacher is motivated and excited can motivate the students as well, even if the teacher is him/herself struggling a bit with the material. The enthusiasm of the teacher can be infectious. This alone will lead to anecdotal "evidence" of success: "I tried it and love it. So did my students."

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I'm asking if there is other research... This isn't really an answer. $\endgroup$ – Sean Houlihane Oct 8 '17 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ I understand that, of course. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Oct 8 '17 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ While not answering the question, it does provide some missing (previously implied) context. Where does/could the gain come from? The bit about the teachers motivation is very important. Also embedded software is more common, than desktop+server software by at least 5:1. $\endgroup$ – ctrl-alt-delor Oct 9 '17 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ I will have to sign with Sean on this one. $\endgroup$ – Jay Oct 9 '17 at 14:36

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