Mission improbable

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Create a secret-agent task to engage children in programming a control device

The activities described here will enable children to learn about control devices and how a computer can be programmed to control a number of different devices with a ‘Mission Impossible’ style twist. They will learn how to create, test, improve and refine sequences of instructions to make things happen and to monitor events. They will be involved in reviewing what they have done to develop their ideas, discussing the effectivenessof their work and explaining how they can improve their work in the future.

Setting up

The children need to be able to use and understand simple electrical circuits involving lamps and switches. You will need to be familiar with the control technology and associated software. A range of control devices are available, Deltronics Interfaces and Valiant Roamer are the most popular. They all use a form of binary procedures and children will need to be familiar with the on/off, yes/no nature of binary language (they should have had experience working with decision trees, for example). Children will also need to be familiar with using stylised control language to control the computer’s actions – using Logo procedures, for example.

Give upper juniors the chance to be secret agents. Give them a mission (if they choose to accept it!) sent by Her Majesty’s Secret Service to devise a ‘lock’ to keep the Royal Crown Jewels safe in transit back to Buckingham Palace. With lower juniors, their task is to try to crack the code and unlock the box (devised by the upper juniors) to graduate as a secret agent. You can decide whether all year groups complete their tasks as a joint project or treat them as stand-alone activities. Different groups of children within the same class could design and build locked boxes for each other, too.

Ages 7-9

Licence to unlock

Learning objective: to connect the ‘lock’ to the computer control unit and explore different command options to open it.

  • The children are presented with the mysterious strongbox.
  • Explain that to see its contents they will need to experiment with ways of unlocking it. Tell them the lock is controlled electronically and the computer control program will enable them to open it… if they can input the correct instructions!
  • Give the children time to explore the workings of the control program, initially using devices separate from the box.
  • It may be helpful to have a very simple, one device ‘lock’ for the children to investigate, for example, a motor with a cam which releases the door, so that they can gain an understanding of how mechanisms work.
  • Ensure the children are confident matching the binary inputs they make to the actions that occur as a result.
  • Allow the children plenty of opportunities to develop their understanding of the way the control interface works.
  • Once the children are confident writing commands for the control box, help them to connect the strongbox to the control interface.
  • Encourage them to test different input commands to different devices to see how it affects the strongbox’s lock mechanism.
  • Ensure that the children take note of any effects their control commands produce. This is a deductive thinking exercise: the children may learn that 0 0 1 0 starts to move a locking bar across the lid, for example.
  • Encourage the children to record their findings as they go. They should be able to use the information they are gathering to help them work out possible future commands.
  • Depending upon the complexity of the locking mechanism and the number of devices being used, the children should find a solution that permits the strongbox to be opened.
  • Encourage them to compare the command procedures they used to open the lock with the ‘answer’ commands that the builders used when creating it.
  • Finally, allow time for the children who opened the box to discuss their experiences with the designers and builders. Let each team evaluate the work: Which parts worked well? How could the lock be developed? What other materials or devices would help to improve the design?
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