Using Relevant and Engaging Content to Pique Student Interest in STEM

algorithmic thinking arduino atari authentic circuit coding computer programming coordinate plane cross-curricular connections echolocation electronics everyday life game game development geometry interdisciplinary instruction learning led mathematics photoresistor physics potentiometer problem solving programming project-based learning real-world resistor software development stealth technology stem stem education thinking tinkercad ultrasonic distance sensor Apr 28, 2024
Students working at computers

Relevant and engaging content captures students' interest and motivates them to learn.  Therefore, in our projects, we focus on activities that are both fun and connected to things with which students are already familiar.

Teaching Computer Programming with Games

Games are a great vehicle for teaching computer programming.  Not only are they fun, in some cases nearly to the point of addiction, most games are rules based and turns oriented.  These characteristics provide a natural context for students to employ algorithmic thinking and conditional decision making.  For example, to write a program to play Rock, Paper, Scissors, students must think through how two people would play the game.  Each player makes a choice, then they reveal their choices. A precise system for ranking the choices determines who wins.  After they identify the game-play logic, students work to translate it into a series of discrete instructions the computer can follow.

Incorporating Concepts from Other Disciplines

In addition to requiring students to implement the game-play logic, some games also incorporate concepts from other academic areas like science or math.  In Bricks Buster, our version of the Atari arcade classic Breakout, students must apply several concepts from geometry to lay out the game board and move various elements during game play.  They use geometric translations to position the bricks on the coordinate grid. To move the paddle and the ball, they must apply concepts from one-dimensional and two-dimensional motion. 

Into the Kuiper Belt, a game inspired by the arcade classic Asteroids™, and The Eagle Has Landed, another game inspired by Lunar Lander™, require the students to understand concepts like inertia and gravity to simulate realistic motion for in-game elements.  These projects are part of our Let’s Play It! series.

Some arcade games are electro-mechanical rather than being played on a computer screen.  Catch the Light is based on the Cyclone™ redemption game where the player must press a button while a specific light is lit in order to win tickets.  In the scaled-down version from our course, students construct an electrical circuit with five LEDs and a push button, then they write code to cycle the lights and detect whether the white LED is lit when the button is pressed.

Removing the Mystique from Real World Systems

However, not everything can be gamified, so we  also teaches students about everyday things like light switches, three-way light bulbs, and nightlights.  In the process, they learn things like:

  • the difference between a momentary switch and a toggle switch
  • how pulse-width modulation simulates an analog signal with a digital one
  • how to use variable resistors like potentiometers and photoresistors to provide different amounts of current to achieve specific results

One of the students’ favorite activities is learning about multi-color LED light strips and how they create a glowing undercarriage or a light-up wheel rim on cars (see for examples).  Because students want to know how these things work, they are motivated to learn the electronics concepts behind them.

In another project, students create a simulation of the obstacle detection system found in modern cars.  The technology at the core of many of these systems is an ultrasonic distance sensor.  Similar to radar and sonar, an ultrasonic distance sensor sends an inaudible sound pulse and measures the time it takes (in microseconds -- millionths of a second) for the echo of the sound pulse to return to the sensor.  By using the speed of sound and some units conversions, students can calculate how far away the obstacle is.  This knowledge can help them better appreciate how bats, dolphins, and other animals and insects use echolocation to navigate their environments.  It might also help them understand stealth technology since both the material of which the obstacle is made and the angle at which the sound pulse hits it can affect the echo.  There are many connections one can make to deepen learning from such a simple and inexpensive piece of technology!

A Spoonful of Sugar

Learning often feels unpleasant and burdensome when the learner cannot see practical applications for the content.  Using relevant and engaging content helps to make clear connections, though, to things students find fun or are already curious about. This is just like adding a little sugar to the medicine or some cheese on the broccoli!

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