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In this article Chris Drage, headteacher of John Betts Primary School, Hammersmith, reviews the place of the Control Console in the curriculum.

From the outset today's children are expected to come to terms with computer control: Key Stage 1, Levels 1-3 (Ages 5-7) "... pupils should be taught to: ... realise that control involves making things work as expected ... know that systems have inputs and outputs".

From there on they are increasingly expected to learn to control models using a computer program and to ultimately design systems to monitor and control environments like model green houses.

Firstly, lets be positive about this: control activities present many opportunities to unite and develop a wide range of skills and experiences acquired across the curriculum, in a meaningful way. In addition, there are considerable advantages of integrating computer control into the classroom environment:

  • children find the activity highly motivating
  • it provides opportunities to examine and influence pupils' thinking processes
  • it fosters independence in children
  • it encourages group work
  • it motivates girls as equally as boys
  • it creates opportunities for real problem solving
  • it offers three dimensional possibilities for computer use
  • it extends and enhances work in structures and mechanisms
  • it encourages children to accept the computer as a real tool.

Whilst the foundations for these topics can be laid at the primary level, the more abstract ideas will be more relevant to the secondary phase. Two questions that are frequently asked are: "Does computer control require lots of expensive computers?" and "Do I need to be an expert in order to introduce control activities?". The short answer to both these questions is N0. A programmable robot like Roamer offers KS1 pupils a gentle and realistic introduction to control. Similarly, for KS2 children a programmable controller like the Valiant Control Console permits children to control their desk top models without any recourse to the classroom computer. In terms of expertise, the whole area of study is so innovative that it affords an excellent opportunity for teachers and pupils to participate in learning together. A bonus indeed.

For the children to enjoy success with control, teachers must feel wholehearted and confident in their approach so initially, resources must cater for the inexperienced teacher and this is what makes the Valiant system so attractive. Where KS1 children learn the fundamentals of the control language via Roamer's turtle-geometry commands, the Roamer Control Box extends these commands to permit control of small "appendages" and models from the Roamer keypad. This neatly builds on the Roamer foundation without incurring excessive cost.

The Valiant Control Console extends these control opportunities beyond Roamer and to a level appropriate to upper Key Stage 2 and above, maintaining continuity and familiarity. Upper KS2 pupils are still able to attempt more ambitious projects with more variety; and without ever having to resort to the classroom's computer system(s).

Vaguely similar to a laptop computer, the Control Console has a colourful, Roamer-like touch pad on the top of an otherwise black case, a loud speaker, and a row of screw connections along its front edge. All input and output lines are illuminated to show their status. The Console is logically divided into eight outputs (for motors, lights etc), eight inputs (for sensors), two counter mechanisms and connectors for two stepper motors. Other keypads are to do with program creation. All screw connections are colour coded to match the connecting wires on Valiant Technology's optional sensors, lights and motors packs. This makes connecting these items very simple although some teachers, I am sure, would prefer a plug and socket approach. Many existing motors, lights and sensors etc. found in Lego, Teko, Meccano and other construction kits can be safely used with the Console including those which a school may have accumulated from other sources.

The Control Console is programmed in a similar fashion to Roamer i.e. by pressing the appropriate key pads. I find lack of any display encourages the writing down of programs on paper and places the accent squarely on writing procedures which virtually all educationalists agree is desirable as it follows a "building-block" approach. Children can create procedures for each step of the problem and write procedures which can call up sub-procedures. The advantage is that if a procedure doesn't function for some reason, then only that part of the program needs to be rewritten. The whole system encourages an orderly approach to control.

Essential to the success is careful explanation and opportunities for children to "play" with the Console in a non-structured way to reinforce ideas before any serious programming is undertaken. The manual offers a succinct explanation of setting lines "high" and "low" and the concept certainly helps to avoid ambiguity (especially when it comes to using motors and sensors) but it is vital to give the children time and opportunity to become used to this concept.

Console programs can be copied to the classroom computer, displayed, saved, merged and reloaded using the optional Computer Interface. This software will gradually become available for all the popular computers found in classrooms. The computer is seen as a support medium with which the merging of programs leads to the development of larger more complex programs; valuable, for example, if you were planning to control a number of related items. Sound is an added bonus with the Console, like Roamer, able to produce 13 notes of eight different durations with a possible five octaves and five tempos.

Roamer evokes a great deal of interest and motivation for all children and provides opportunities for thinking, problem solving and for the development of IT skills. The Console builds neatly on the Roamer Control Box by offering more outputs and inputs and without monopolising the Roamer. Continuity is offered making the expanding range of Valiant control equipment familiar to children, permitting them to get on with the project at hand without having to relearn a new control system. Similarly, the Control Console perpetuates Valiant Technology's laudable emphasis on developing and using procedures. In short, it is a system which fulfils its role very well providing an easy route to more complex aspects of control technology.

  © 2004. Amethyst Consultancy Ltd.