Letting pupils ‘tinker’ is the way to teach electronics

A version of this blog post was published on the Times Education Supplement. ISSN 0040-7887 – 10th February 2017 at 14:03

Changes to the curriculum for design and technology place a greater emphasis on pupils’ learning about electronics and computer programming. They also highlight the need to learn within fashion contexts.

But teachers can find this move to non-traditional integrated materials and technologies daunting. As a design and technology teacher educator, who was originally trained in textiles, I appreciate those challenges but I also find the move exciting.

Part of my challenge is how to make teaching electronics concepts like current flow; component functionality and positive/negative energy, concrete for my learners.

When I first started teaching trainee teachers about electronic systems, I got them to follow ‘step-by-step’ instruction sheets, which protected me, the teacher, against questions like “what do I do next?”, but ‘step-by-step’ instructions don’t help trainee teachers to answer questions about why the components function in different ways, depending on where they are placed in the circuit and what to do if things go wrong.  

At times, this led to frustration and fear from both myself and my student teachers.

Resnick and Rosenbaum (2013) write about e-textile teaching in the States. They urge teachers to consider problem-solving activities that rely on tangible objects, which allow learners to ‘tinker’ with electronic components and construct their own understanding of the concepts that govern how various components function, within a soft (textile) or traditional (resistant materials) circuit.

Teachers, however, must be given the confidence to let pupils ‘loose’ with tinkering. That is why myself and my colleague, Alison Hardy collaborated with a local small manufacturing enterprise (SME) – Kitronic – to create smart fashion resources that would support teachers in school.

Using the ideas from Resnick and Rosenbaum, we developed a short scheme of work that exploited the use of teacher prepared ‘tinkering kits’, to introduce Year 7 learners to the concept of smart fashion and electronic circuits.

The project, supported by European Regional Development funding, allowed us to create and test a Year 7 unit of learning that detailed, resources; learning objectives; teaching activities; and teacher notes, to support key stage three learners with electronic textile concepts. 

The first lesson encourages learners to play with a ‘tinkering kit’ that is comprised of a 3V battery (coin cell), an LED (regular or e-textile compatible), a piece of conductive fabric (300mm x 3000mm) and two crocodile clips.

In groups of three, pupils are challenged, to light up the LED, using the items in the ‘tinkering kit’. The activity allows learners to handle electronic components and crocodile clips whilst solving the answer to the challenge. The tricky abstract concepts, like polarity and current flow, become real as learners explore the function of the components, through trial and error.

Other lessons in the scheme, develop knowledge of the components within a system that control the function and behaviour of various inputs and outputs, e.g. battery holders, lights and sensors. Pupils create individual soft (textile) versions of electronic components, like battery holders and switches.

The lesson supports pupils in developing their textile construction skills using pre-cut fabric with etched guidelines (to guide the stitching line).

Teachers who have trialled these kits said “these would be very helpful for developing the construction skills required to make smart fashion objects, back in the classroom”, they also found that the group challenge, supported them in “sharing ideas and working together as a team” whilst building “confidence up straight away”.

The tangible nature of the activity came through when a teacher noted that “it is easy to see if you are doing it right or wrong because the end objective, the goal, to get the LED to light up [is or] isn’t working”.

Teaching electronic circuits through textiles makes learning about electronics joyful and transparent. By this, I mean fun for the learner as they get to explore the materials and technologies themselves and transparent because the inner workings of the circuit components are exposed.

This type of activity can provide a way to get all pupils learning the principles of electronic systems in a non-traditional way. Non-traditional teaching within design and technology can help to bring the different material areas closer together.

Electronic circuits and computation are important areas of design and technological knowledge that can often be assigned to masculine areas of the curriculum, like robotics and computer gaming.

I believe that one of the most exciting things about the new specifications for the GCSE is the non-traditional stance on single material areas of study. The opportunity for young people to experience a gender-neutral version of D&T is a brave and important step for future design curriculum.

It is therefore important that teachers are given the tools they require to teach this new area with confidence.

You can access some of the resources discussed hereand read a copy of Sarah’s research paper: How to teach ‘Smart Fashion’ within the D&T curriculum: have we got it right? here.

Sarah Davies is a senior lecturer in secondary design and technology education within the Nottingham Institute of Education at Nottingham Trent University

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