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Physical Computing - Robotics - Processors and Chips


Physical computing is the combining of software and hardware to build interactive physical systems that sense and respond to the real world. (Source:

Practical Application 

We live in a physical world. Supporting students to take code off the screen and into their hands prepares students for all aspects of their lives, both as creators and consumers. Students will regularly encounter physical computing systems, so it is important that they have an understanding both of how broad computing is (not simply screen based) and how ubiquitous it is in the world around them.

“Research shows that physical computing and making activities are highly engaging approaches for learners, giving them a sensory, tactile, and creative experience in which they can combine computing with art, craft, and design. Physical computing is both a tool to engage learners and a strategy to help them develop their understanding in more creative ways. This approach also has the benefit of supporting and engaging a diverse range of learners in tangible and challenging tasks. There is some evidence, for example, that girls engage more with physical computing because a physical project may have more immediate real-world applications. (Hello World, Big Book of Pedagogy, page 130)

Three examples of how a professional or person might use a physical computing system:

  1. Some voting machines are physical computing systems. The machines use sensors to read the ballots cast by voters, and then software to count and verify total votes for candidates or other referendums.

  2. ATM and mobile banking applications are physical computing systems. There are multiple sensors used to read your card, and software to check your pin or password, communicate with the bank network, and motors and sensors are used to count and distribute cash to you.

  3. Keyless entry is a physical computing system. Sensors or input pads are used to read keycards, biometrics (fingerprints or other identifying information) and then determine if it should grant access. Motors or other devices are then used to unlock the door to enable entry.

Are there SPECIFIC standards for physical computing or robotics?

Physical computing is often used as a manipulative to teach other standards, yet the Internet of Things and increase in the number of sensor enabled devices in our everyday lives is making this an important, and fun, topic to teach. Robotics is available in many states as a CTE domain of study and there may be specific standards in your state for robotics.

Are there places where physical computing appears in other standards 

There are numerous places where applications of physical computing appear in other standards. Below are a few examples.  

  • CSTA, Computing Systems 

    • 1B-CS-01 Describe how internal and external parts of computing devices function to form a system.

    • 2-CS-01 Recommend improvements to the design of computing devices, based on an analysis of how users interact with the devices.

    • 2-CS-02 Design projects that combine hardware and software components to collect and exchange data.

    • 2-CS-03 Systematically identify and fix problems with computing devices and their components.

    • 3A-CS-01 Explain how abstractions hide the underlying implementation details of computing systems embedded in everyday objects.

    • 3A-CS-02 Compare levels of abstraction and interactions between application software, system software, and hardware layers.


Many standards involve collecting and analyzing data in science courses across the K-12 spectrum. In most modern science applications, that data is collected with sensors and read by physical computing systems (instead of a scientist taking individual readings). The following standards can be achieved using physical computing devices to measure readings over time:

  • (S-ESS3-5 - Earth and Human Activity): Analyzing geoscience data and global climate model results, which can include environmental monitoring data collected via sensors​.

  • (HS-ESS2-2 - Earth's Systems): Involves analyzing geoscience data, where physical computing devices can collect data related to Earth's surface and environmental changes​.

  • (HS-LS4-3 - Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity) and HS-LS3-3 (Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits): Both of these standards involve applying statistical concepts to biological data, which can be gathered and analyzed using devices like the micro:bit​​​​.

  • (HS-PS2-1 - Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions): Analyzing data related to Newton’s second law of motion, where a micro:bit can be used to collect data on forces and motion​.

  • (MS-ETS1-3 - Engineering Design): Middle school students can use the micro:bit to analyze data from tests to refine engineering designs​.

  • (MS-ESS3-2 - Earth and Human Activity) and MS-ESS2-3 (Earth's Systems): These standards involve analyzing data on natural hazards and geological data, which can be collected using a physical computing device​​​.

  • (MS-ESS1-3 - Earth's Place in the Universe): Involves data analysis to understand scale properties of solar system objects, where data collection can be enhanced with technology​.

  • (MS-LS4-3 - Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity): Analyzing pictorial data to compare embryological development, which can be facilitated by data collected through sensors and devices​.


Some standards do not directly mention a device but if students need to analyze data to explain phenomena, there is an opportunity to use a physical computing device. For example in the science standards:

  • (MS-ESS3–5 ) Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.

  • (MS-ESS2-1) Develop a model to describe the cycling of Earth’s materials and the flow of energy that drives this process.

Is there a natural home for physical computing within K-12? 

Computer Science, Science

What are good starting resources for a teacher or administrator?

There are lots of resources in computer science and science curricula for teaching physical computing. Consider these links or check to see if some teachers in your building are already using physical computing in their instruction.

Hello World, Big Book of Pedagogy, Pages 129-139 

Microsoft Physical Computing 

Microsoft Introduction to Physical Computing - Computer science 

ARM School program - Computer Science 

CS4ALL Physical Computing (40 hours) Physical Computing - Computer Science

How do ethics and social impacts intersect? (provide links)

Creators of physical computing systems have a responsibility to make sure programs and applications are ethically, legally, and socially acceptable. These responsibilities impact not only teacher pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment, but many other aspects of integrating physical computing into your community. 


Organizations such as the Association for Computing Machineryai4k12.orgThe Kapor Center, and UX Planet have resources about the ethical implications of physical computing devices and how to teach about them.

What keywords could be searched to find out more about this?





Real-world computing

Embedded systems


Raspberry Pi


How can we build capacity to add physical computing to our instruction?

Professional learning

CSTA - physical computing affinity group 


Financial Support

Physical computing can be aligned with many existing subject areas like science or ELA. Look for funding for new and novel approaches to teaching existing subjects, and inspiration from project examples from the internet.


The CHIPS Act is focused on supporting microelectronics which are the building blocks of all physical computing and robotics devices. The National Science Foundation as well as private companies have grants to support a variety of approaches to physical computing and microelectronics.

Pathway planning and Support

  • CSforALL SCRIPT Program

  • Check with your local CSTA chapter or with your state department of education for upcoming professional learning and pathway planning opportunities.

Fields of SC

How its connected

Physical computing is the layer where computers intersect humans in the real world. Many of the topics studied in computer science (AI, cybersecurity, networking, data science, etc.) have a physical computing application and/or require physical computing to collect information over time.

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