Commanding presence

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Tearing your hair out with control technology? Chris Drage sorts through some useful new helpers on the market for all age ranges

In modern society, computer control has become all-pervasive. From the automatic streetlight outside the home to the domestic gas central-heating system and the ubiquitous automatic washing machine, many devices are increasingly controlled by microelectronics and respond to sensors. All require a human at some stage to programme them with a set of instructions.

At key stage 1, the foundations of learning control technology are laid using Logo and devices such as floor robots. Generally speaking, control at this level is well delivered, with children at Year 2 able to program a robot with simple instructions.

A lot of discussion also focuses on ways in which we operate familiar technology, such as tape recorders and television monitors, using onoff switches, on-screen displays and remote controls. Children explore battery-operated toys and discuss what makes them work.

At KS2 the emphasis changes from the self-contained floor robot to controlling models and other devices, and here it is important that children have first-hand experience of developing a control program for a real model or device and don't rely on computer-based simulations. Once the principles are understood, then using simulations is an efficient way to hone their skills in control programming.

At KS3, these skills continue to be developed and applied, as they are in industry, to programming PIC (peripheral interface controller) chips.

The control strand of ICT is one of the toughest to deliver, whatever the age group. For the teacher, it can seem like a recipe for disaster - a minefield of technical bits and bobs, and loose wires. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that there isn't enough kit to go round and, even if there was, how would you get it all set up in time?

Management of control activities in the classroom is probably the biggest stumbling block for most teachers. This is the one area where pupils need hands-on experience of a control system, no matter how simple.

If equipment is limited, it is essential that activities are planned so that pupils have sufficient time to develop their skills and understanding.

One way to achieve this is to train an ICT-confident teaching assistant, who can take groups of four or five children for a number of sessions, focusing on learning to write a control program to make the model behave in a prescribed manner.

However, hands-on activities are vital for students to gain a full understanding of how to perform similar operations on a control simulation or "mimic".

When everyone has had their practical sessions, teachers should be able to take them into the network room and set them a number of challenges using the control simulations. This is a strategy that has proven most successful in many schools. To complete the work, the teaching assistant could guide individuals through an assessment task using another control model.

Control technology is becoming much easier to deliver, thanks to some very timely and innovative products for all age ranges which were unveiled in January at the educational technology show, BETT 2005.

Rather than comparing like with like, I have cherry-picked the best of the latest control resources on the market. Whether teaching at foundation, primary or secondary level, this collection, which covers floor robots, software and models, provides something to support beginners right through to packages that challenge the keenest key stage 4 student.

TITLE

Beebot TTS

pound;34.99 each; pound;100 for four; pound;120 for six (available in July)

Tel: 0800 318686

Email: sales@tts-group.co.uk

www.tts-group.co.uk

DESCRIPTION

Beebot provides foundation and KS1 students with a gentle and familiar introduction to control. Its simplicity makes it an ideal precursor to Roamer and more advanced programming activities.

SUITABILITY

Built to last and take knocks, the diminutive Beebot is only 11cm long, so it can work on large trays and tabletops, yet its strong motor means it will move on hard-wearing school carpeting.

FUNCTIONALITY

Beebot moves very firmly and hesitates between instructions for a split second to allow children to see it execute each command separately. Its eyes flash and it beeps with every instruction given or carried out. Its simplicity is its strength, and activities can be as basic or as complex as required. Beebot just begs the addition of removable covers on which to build with popular construction kits, and plans are afoot to make it a robot that resembles a postie's delivery van.

EXTRAS

TTS has also developed ICT-based play items to help younger children make sense of their world and provide first-hand ICT experience: realistic "working" washing machines, cash dispensers and microwave cookers that have simple controls and sound effects, and control items that can be used indoors and out, such as a metal detector.

VERDICT

For nurseries it can seem a daunting prospect to spend pound;120 on a floor robot that is not used often, and battery recharging or replacement costs are additional disincentives. So the low-cost Beebot, which uses three AA batteries or rechargeables, is a welcome new resource. An excellent robot that represents extremely good value for money.

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Factory Control Soft Teach Educational

pound;50 for up to five users; pound;80 for up to 10 users; pound;110 for up to 20 users

Tel: 01985 840 329

Email: sales@soft-teach.co.uk

www.soft-teach.co.uk

DESCRIPTION

Factory Control, aimed at key stages 2 to 3, is a control simulation program which follows in the wake of the popular Traffic Control software from Soft Teach.

SUITABILITY

Factory Control allows children to "run" their own bike factory. It can reinforce concepts such as cause-and-effect relationships and provides a useful vehicle for collaborative work.

FUNCTIONALITY

Pupils can program simple control sequences to build different types of bicycles. The program keeps check of what each pupil is doing and suggests answers to their problems. The software is interactive and varied and pupils' results are stored so that teachers can check progress. Two options link to history units (the Victorians and a Penny Farthing, and the Second World War).

EXTRAS

Factory Control offers an introduction to Traffic Control, a simulation in which children must learn to program traffic lights correctly. As an interim step, they should try programming a Lego or Commotion traffic lights model.

VERDICT

Factory Control is an excellent simulation is simpler than Traffic Control and should prove very popular.

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CoCo Flow

Commotion

pound;60

Tel: 01732 773399

Email: enquries@ commotiongroup.co.uk

www.commotiongroup.co.uk

DESCRIPTION

For key stage 2, CoCo Flow is an updated and much improved version of the original CoCo program.

SUITABILITY

I particularly like the fact that you can convert written procedures into editable flow charts and vice versa. A wide range of differentiation is also possible with CoCo Flow.

FUNCTIONALITY

CoCo Flow offers just about the last word in control software and is really easy to use. The language in this latest version is easy to follow and is very logical and straightforward - just follow through each feature level by level and all the functions of the software become clear. CoCo Flow also features simulated (virtual) models so you can teach the skills to the class without having to have the physical control box connected, and the whole class does not need to be in the network room. There is a clown, a house, traffic lights, and soon to be released automatic doors, greenhouse, ferris wheel and safe.

EXTRAS

Commotion's new USB control box now has in-built light and sound sensors for control and monitoring as well as data logging. It ideally complements CoCo.

New clown and lighthouse models also complement the simulations.

VERDICT

The control simulations look very good and, like CoCo, are very easy to use. This is excellent control software.

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Robolab-online

Commotion Group

pound;149 for the first year

Also available on CD-Rom, updated three times per year for pound;199

Tel: 01732 773399

Email: enquries@ commotiongroup.co.uk

www.commotiongroup.co.uk

DESCRIPTION

For schools who have invested in Lego's RoboLab, Robolab-online is a web simulation tool that enables key stage 3 pupils to develop their programming and is designed to be used alongside the Lego RCX brick.

SUITABILITY

Robolab-online is not only cost effective but also allows individual students or teams to try out and test their ideas before putting them into practice. It's a great means for honing those programming skills.

FUNCTIONALITY

The aim of this site is to enable pupils to learn quickly the basics of the Robolab software, allowing them to progress effectively onto the physical model. The ideal classroom solution for a school with an ICT suite would be a mixture of the real software and the simulations available on this website. Whole-class teaching of computer control has always posed a huge logistical problem which control simulations largely overcome.

EXTRAS

Central to the RoboLab system is the RCX, an autonomous programmable microcomputer that can hold five separate control programs.

Team Challenge class set includes everything required to carry out computer control challenges. Amusement Park and RoboSoccer starter sets provide exciting alternatives.

VERDICT

Robolab-online aims to provide online simulations for pupils to carry out while learning the basics of the software, without taking up valuable learning time with the RCX brick. There's loads of help, too - tutorials, demos, pupil guides, answer guides (for teachers) and downloadable resources.

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Robo Mobile Set Fischertechnik (UK)

pound;152

Tel: 0800 174 734

Email: sales@fischertechnik.co.uk

www.fischertechnik.co.uk

DESCRIPTION

This is a complete floor-robot package comprising components to build any one of eight mobile robots, the Robo interface and the ROBO Pro software.

SUITABILITY

I have always liked Fischertechnik as it offers an alternative to Lego's layered building approach and is a better representation of "real" engineering. With the optional sensor pack, the Robo Mobile multi-sensory robot opens up a host of control scenarios for KS3-4 students.

FUNCTIONALITY

Known mostly for its KS3 Kickstart control models, Fischertechnik has made a new commitment to education which is exemplified by the new Robo Mobile Set. The models can follow a light source and a black line, and offer obstacle recognition. With the addition of an optional sensor pack, one robot can be built to perform all three tasks. The software uses flow charting to create a control program, very much like Flowol and Logicator.

EXTRAS

Industry Robots: four realistic and fully functional industrial robots.

Pneumatic Robots: machines powered by compressed air can be programmed and controlled with the Robo interface and software, ROBO Pro, through the PC.

VERDICT

For KS3, the ROBO Mobile Set offers a multitude of control opportunities and an exciting means of exploring robotics.

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PIC-Logicator 2005 Economatics

pound;195

Tel: 0114 281 3311

www.economatics.co.ukeducation

DESCRIPTION

Economatics' PIC-Logicator 2005 software for key stages 3 and 4, can now be used to program PICAXE chips, bringing more convenience to control programming PIC chips.

SUITABILITY

Logicator is an established, tried and tested control application.

PIC-Logicator 2005 extends and improves an already excellent control system for KS3-4.

FUNCTIONALITY

In many schools, PICs have revolutionised students' DT projects at GCSE, A-level and, increasingly, at KS3, because they enable them to build sophisticated, microprocessor-based control systems into products of their own. PIC-Logicator 2005, a flowchart-based software, provides a simple, visual environment for designing the PIC program, opening up the technology to a wider age and ability range. PICAXE chips are programmed "in circuit" directly from the computer, and so greatly reduce the possibility of chip damage.

EXTRAS

Soft Systems: on-screen control simulations enable a whole class to build and test Logicator control programs. Each one contains a range of animated output devices and interactive sensors.

Soft Systems Studio: Use any kind of digital images to create a completely new and original Soft System.

VERDICT

Teachers will welcome the free teaching materials and support CD containing a full software and hardware manual as well as teaching materials for the new range of PICAXE-based T-boards and ready-made resources for teaching PIC-Logicator 2005 quickly and efficiently.

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Crocodile ICT 501 Crocodile Clips Ltd

pound;190 for 5 users

Tel: 0131 2261511

www.crocodile-clips.com

DESCRIPTION

Using flowcharts to write programs, Crocodile ICT 501 adopts a novel approach to control using human characters. It features a girl and a boy, each capable of 48 different actions which can be programmed using the flowcharts.

SUITABILITY

Crocodile ICT 501 is a super tool for learning about control technology for KS3 students. By using virtual human characters or on-screen animations, it makes complex programming concepts easily accessible to all.

FUNCTIONALITY

The actions include dance steps, walking, turning and interactions such as a high-five. This control program offers an engaging challenge to all students -even those who don't think they're interested in control. You can create dance routines and repeating steps using repeats and subroutines. The "human" characters offer an accessible way to teach abstract programming concepts, such as variables, loops, functions and conditional statements.

EXTRAS

None

VERDICT

Crocodile ICT 501 will motivate the most disaffected student in control technology and programming. It might even offer the perfect integration of dance and ICT.

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