Innovative Practice - Keyed up

19th October 2012 at 01:00
Using an affordable kit to build an 8-bit computer as coursework for a GCSE in electronics

The background

Coursework has been heavily criticised for "dumbing down" GCSEs. However, some pupils continue to set out on projects that can surprise adults with their ambition.

Jon Rabbette, 16, decided that for his GCSE in electronics and control systems he would construct an 8-bit computer. His first piece of coursework had been a prototype design for a processor heat sink, a component that keeps a computer processor cool. The computer would be the main practical part of his coursework, for which students normally build simpler devices such as a basic burglar alarm.

The project

Jon, a pupil at Prince Henry's High School in Evesham, near Worcester, first obtained one of the new #163;20 FIGnition kits, developed by a British computer programmer.

These create a simple computer similar to the popular Raspberry Pi machine, which schools are starting to buy to teach basic programming. However, unlike the Raspberry Pi, the FIGnition has to be constructed by the purchaser, which involves soldering all the components to the circuit board.

Building a working computer took several attempts, and Jon had to seek advice from the kit's creator, Julian Skidmore, who emailed helpful tips and ways around particular snags.

Jon also constructed a casing and keyboard for the device, which he designed using the programs Google SketchUp and CorelDRAW. He then used a computer-controlled laser cutter at his school to cut a piece of plastic into shape.

The design was inspired by the Apple II, one of the first home computers, which was first produced in 1977. One of the trickiest parts, Jon says, was constructing the integrated keyboard and getting it to work.

Jon was encouraged by his electronics teacher Nick Dowling and other members of staff. And he says he was relieved when he plugged the computer into a television and finally got it to switch on, ready to begin programming.

"I was amazed I got it to work, and Mr Dowling was flabbergasted," he says. "Having read a lot on the internet, it appears as if the government and organisations such as the BBC are very interested in getting kids to learn how to code and program, as our country is somewhat lacking in this area compared to, say, America or Japan."

However, Jon admits he won't be spending a long time creating programs on the device. "The keyboard's still a bit dodgy," he explains.

Tips from the scheme

"If it doesn't work, persevere with it," Jon says.

"Treat it as a challenge and have fun."

Seek out support if you run into problems; a Google group has been set up for the FIGnition (bit.lyP9l3bB).

Evidence that it works?

Jon received a score of 98 per cent for his coursework, and is now focusing on his AS levels. He hopes to have a career in electronic engineering or industrial design.

Only 500 of the FIGnition kits have sold, so Jon is believed to have been the first pupil to construct one as part of his GCSE coursework. However, growing numbers of schools are now looking to try out the devices.

The kit to build the FIGnition is available for around #163;20 from bit.lylP4YEu


Approach - Building an 8-bit computer as GCSE coursework


Name - Prince Henry's High School

Location - Worcestershire

Type - Foundation school

Pupils - Around 1,260

Intake - A below-average proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals, but a higher-than-average proportion of pupils from a Gypsy Romany heritage

Ofsted overall rating - Outstanding (2010).

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