Kid's Project 2009.
This course is the result of two years work and is designed to teach students how to interface and program PIC micro-controllers, as a tool for solving problems. It is aimed at the age group 8 - 80 and requires no previous knowledge of mathematics, physics or electronics. The course consists of 45 minute modules. At this time 50 modules are available that cover most aspects of micro-processor control, including the design and programming of autonomous robots.
The project operates at two levels, junior and secondary school.
It has to be assumed that an eight year old child has very little in the way of mathematics, physics and electronics, which means the course has to work without those skills. It would also not be realistic to expect a child to be able to solder at the entrance age, this means that all hardware connections must be of a plug-in nature. Since the child will not be able to identify electrical and electronic components all interfacing must be provided for in the hardware.
The software proposed is common to both Junior and Secondary school levels and is adequate up to GCSE level and beyond. It is a requirement of the project that the software used must be available without cost.
Junior school Hardware.
It is a requirement of the project that the basic hardware used within the school, is also available for private purchase, at pocket money level prices. The reason for this is because the aim of the project is to interest children in STEM subjects and get them 'hooked' on science not only as a school subject, but also as a hobby, that they will want to also pursue in their own homes. A large part of the project has been to engineer costs down to an acceptable level, specifically £10 for the basic set of hardware.
The basic hardware set consists of :
a. A training board.
Fig. 1. The Junior training board.
b. A battery pack and cable.
c. A USB to TTL program download cable.
d. A plug-in LED board.
The complete junior basic kit.
The Junior board with the optional serial LCD module.
Before a child can start the course they need to do a two hour induction, during which time they will learn all that they need to know about micro-processors, how they work and interface. An induction would typically include two children and up to two adults. The main purpose of restricting numbers, is to make sure that both children get full 'hands on experience' during the induction. During the induction the children will write their own working programs, download them to a real micro-processor and see it control real output devices.
The Junior course.
The junior course consists of about 50 x 45 minute modules, spread over part, or all of the Junior school years. Each module provides a 'building' block that can be combined with others, in order to produce solutions to real world problems. All common input sensors and output devices will be covered. Bias is given to subjects that will appeal to children, ie ROBOT's, scientific games, challenges, music etc..
I think one must bear in mind that the prime object of the project is to get children 'hooked' on science at a much earlier age and this automatically means that it will be outside of any normal junior school curriculum. It may therefore be said, that since it is outside of what a school might reasonably be expected to teach children, then school time could not be allotted to it. It could also be argued that the expertise to teach this kind of technical subject may not be available in a given school. One must also assume that the existing teachers already have a full workload and not have the time to fully support such initiatives, even in a supervisory role. It would appear that for the project to work, it has to be capable of running itself, either inside of, or ..... outside of normal school hours.
It may be asked that if all of the above objections can be over come why do we need the schools involvement at all ?. The short answer, is that for a dozen reasons, 'the school' is the unifying element that can make it all work. If you were to demand a single reason, I would have to say that the project could not work without the schools library !. You have already seen the basic hardware kit, which is not only affordable to the school, but also the child and it's parents. What would not be affordable to the child or it's parents, would be the cost of buying all of the hardware required for the 50 modules, hardware that would only be required for 45 minutes anyway. So let us have a look at the kind of additional hardware required by the modules ....
Nor would it be in the schools interest to require 40 identical sets of hardware, for every single module or lesson. The cost would be prohibitive !. So what is the solution ?. One solution is to hold one set of hardware modules in the lab where the subject may be 'taught'. The second is to hold an identical set of hardware modules in the schools library where they can be issued in the same way as books, on temporary loan, for say two days .... which would give the student enough time to complete a module, without having to actually buy the required hardware. Thus, a single hardware module can serve a thousand students, at no cost to the child or the parents. Amortised over the number of students using the module, the cost amounts to nothing !.
Children naturally progress at different rates, we could start 40 children on a course right now and by the end of the week, some would be far in advanced of the others, if allowed to do so. If we did not allow this, it would be admitting that we are holding back the more advanced to satisfy a 'norm'. The problem is that in any group some will rush ahead of the others and this can greatly discourage those visibly left behind. If we allow too rapid 'visible' progress then it may be that the student is not allowing themselves enough time to fully absorb everthing they need to. Likewise those that drop behind are unlikely to catch up, without some help from those who speak the same language. Another problem is that a child may very quickly outstrip the abilities of the person supervising them. What is required is an automatic self perpetuating and regulating system .... sounds like a job for Mr. Computer !.
The virtual regulators.
The question is what happens when the child has completed the first module and wants to move on ?. It cannot be allowed until it has been ascertained that the child has fully absorbed the content of the first module and that means a test of the child's knowledge on the subject. Until the child has shown that they have achieved a satisfactory standard, they should not be allowed access to the next module. This can be achieved by having a virtual tutor and virtual examiner on line. When a child completes a module they can elect to take an on line test on that module, which the virtual examiner will assemble from a random selection of questions from a database for that module. To prevent cheating it has to be done on a teacher controlled school computer and 'closed book' against I.D..
If the student passes, then the virtual tutor will automatically issue the next module, by email. When all modules have been successfully been completed (and the required practical work completed ), a certificate of competence can be issued.
The virtual examiner can automatically flag the 'fliers' and those who are dragging behind, for a 'pairing' period, where the advanced help those behind. It should be stressed that there can be many reasons why a student is behind and it should not be regarded as a 'problem'. A 'gifted' student could complete three years work in a month, but if an autistic student does the same in three years, then which is the bigger achievement ?.
The same virtual infrastructure introduced at the junior school level will also be capable of providing and supporting a seamless progression to secondary school level. The only question is when the transition takes place, ie before or after the child moves to the secondary school. If a child can demolish the complete junior school content in a short time, would it be fair ... or wise, to make them wait until they get to secondary school before they are allowed to progress to the secondary level course ?. If the tests set by the virtual examiner are set at the correct level and the student passes all of them, then what would be the point in denying them access to the secondary level ?.
The secondary school level.
At the junior level the student has already absorbed the basics and has an intimate knowledge of sensors and output devices and has tackled simple real world problems using that knowledge. At secondary level, the student can apply themselves to the advanced practical application of their knowledge. For example, can trigeminal neuralgia pain be suppressed, can SUDEP symptoms be detected electronically, why do our central heating systems work upside down and how we can solve the energy crisis. To do that we need to enter into the data gathering world and that requires an advanced development board, which looks like this ...
The secondary school development board.
Again, for the child who has used the junior board, it is not too much different, simply more inputs and outputs. What the child does not immediately see is the speed of operation is ten times faster, with a huge 32K memory and a host of advanced features, such as the ability to decode a full PC keyboard, 127 channels or IR remote control etc. All of the previously learned sensors and output devices are still compatible. With four dedicated analogue inputs and fully programmable pins it has far more power than the computer that put man on the moon !. It also has an I2C data bus as well as an SPI data bus, so things like mass data storage are also available. What the child cannot see on both boards is the ability to peel back that which is obvious, to progressively reveal layers of more complex functions. Suddenly there are no limits, except those which you impose upon yourself or others !
The above shows only a small part of the project.