Physical Computing Is Heading to Education: What You Need to Know

Partnerships Manager, Cognitive ToyBox

The following is from an interview about physical computing with Tom Lauwers and Bambi Brewer from one of the coolest robotics companies in Pittsburgh (maybe on the planet), BirdBrain Technologies.

Bambi Brewer showing off creative robots
Bambi Brewer showing off creative robots

What the heck is physical computing?

Physical computing means creating or using devices that interact with the world around them. A physical computer senses its environment, processes that information, and then performs some action.  This “sense – think – act” cycle can also be used to define a robot. At BirdBrain Technologies we use the terms “physical computing” and “robotics” interchangeably.

Creating a robot involves engineering or making. Then you also need to write a computer program to make the robot do something interesting! Robots don’t always look like the ones shown in movies. Some are humanoids or robotic cars, but you can also make robotic pets or gardens. The sky’s the limit! Robots provide students with a way to see their code working in the world.

How can teachers get started with physical computing?

If you have local colleagues who are using robotics in their classes, invite them for a show and tell over coffee. A local or national educational technology conference can be a great opportunity to try out a workshop on physical computing. Even your local library may have programs. Think about your own classroom goals. Choose technology that is appropriate for your students and that you can integrate into your curriculum.

Are there prerequisite skills that students (and teachers) should develop before making robots?

There are no prerequisites, but an open mind and persistence are very helpful!

Knitted robots
Knitted robots

How does physical computing relate to BirdBrain’s products?

We created two devices for physical computing. The Finch is a pre-built robot used for introductory computer science education at all levels. The Hummingbird Kit enables students to create open-ended robotics projects. The kits come with lights, motors, sensors, and a microcontroller board. Students use cardboard, felt, and other craft supplies to create their own robot in the shape of whatever they can imagine, from a blooming flower to a dancing dinosaur.

Describe the educational outcomes you see when students make and program robots.

Teachers in subjects ranging from math to music are already using robotics in creative ways to help their students understand the content more deeply. For example, a teacher may have students create robotic dioramas that represent a poem. This requires students to think deeply about the poem in order to represent its meaning and symbolism in the robot. In addition to learning about engineering and computer science, students are engaging in a different way with the language arts curriculum.

What was your inspiration for starting BirdBrain Technologies?

Tom was working with teachers and students on the projects that would lead to Finch and Hummingbird as part of his Ph.D work at

Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. Teachers involved in these research studies often asked to purchase the kits and robots being used. As the designer of the Finch/Hummingbird hardware, Tom decided to make them commercially available. Eight years later, the focus of the company remains on developing the best hardware, software, curriculum, and training materials for bringing physical computing into the classroom.

Describe any shortcomings of physical computing.

It isn’t necessarily a shortcoming, but physical computing can make debugging a little more complicated.When you find a problem, it might be caused by the robot’s design (hardware) or the program running on the robot (software). Testing each piece of hardware and software as you add it to the robot can help you more easily find and fix bugs.

Are there free resources that you recommend?

There are a lot of free resources to help you get started with programming. Scratch and the Beauty and Joy of Computing are two of our favorites. You can also apply to our Finch loan program to borrow a flock of Finches for free!

What are your hopes for the future of computer science education?

We hope that students will gain skills in engineering and computer science! But more than that, we hope that students (and their teachers) will use robotics to express themselves and create projects that are meaningful to them. We can’t wait to see what you make!

Bambi Brewer

Bambi is the curriculum designer for Birdbrain Technologies. Her job is to help teachers integrate the Hummingbird and Finch robots into their classrooms. This includes working to align robotics projects to existing curriculum standards, helping teachers document and share their successful classroom projects, and coming up with fun new ways to use the Hummingbird and Finch.
Bambi has B.S. degrees in math and physics from Rhodes College, and a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. She has ten years of experience in education at all levels and has been designing robotics curricula since 2013. Her current obsessions include laser cutting robotic mechanisms, showing people how to use math to do cool things, and knitting.

Tom Lauwer

Tom is founder and chief roboticist at BirdBrain Technologies, located in Pittsburgh, PA. He seeks to design educational tools that catalyze positive making, coding, and engineering learning experiences in the classroom. Tom received a Ph.D in robotics in 2010 from Carnegie Mellon in part for his work designing the Finch robot and Hummingbird robotics kit. The Finch is a small robot designed to inspire and delight students learning computer science by providing a tangible representation of their code. The Hummingbird is a kit that allows students to create and program robots built from electronic components and craft materials.   

Tom resides in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood with his wife, two kids, cat, and a small army of robots. He would be an invaluable ally in the event of a robot uprising.

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Images courtesy of Nikki Navta. 

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