Creating a Compelling Argument for Computer Science in Lifelong Learning

In the early 1990s, when researchers at MIT worked to develop programmable bricks for children, they were guided by Papert’s notion that creating and constructing create deeper understanding [Resnick, 1993]. Of course, most of Papert’s work has been bound up in the idea that the computer could be “the children’s machine” [emphasis mine].

President Obama recently asked every young American to learn computer science because “it’s important for our country’s future.” According to promotional materials from code. org (the group associated with Hour of Code), the main impe- tus behind learning computer science is career development. In order to “stay on the cutting edge” students must learn how to create new technologies, not just use them.

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Computer science is promoted as path to a better job and economic prosperity, not as a fun, creative endeavor.According to this line of thinking, for older adults no longer on the job market, there are few “practical” reasons go beyond basic computer literacy. When I suggested to participants that computer programming activities might help keep their minds sharp, most agreed that the benefits would be similar to completing puzzles or other logic games. I also emphasized that for some people, creating physical computing projects is a hobby in itself, while for others, it can be a way to extend craft-based hobbies or creative interactive art. Most users verbally agreed with this statement.

One of Knowles’ principles of adult learning states that a direct need can increase motivation [Knowles, 1980]. Although the surveys indicated that a majority of the participants would be interested in continuing with an electronic toolkit and recommending it to another older adult, in group discus- sions, many stated that they had no real “need” to learn how to use a microcontroller.

While computer literacy training could be considered a necessity, computer science activities (like electronic construction kits) should be reframed as creative, enriching, playful pursuits.

Constructivist Approach with Older Adults

Older users were very tentative with the materials. Several participants expressed concerns about breaking or damaging the components and most were initially reluctant to bend the wires until I assured them it was fine to do so. (“I was afraid I was going to break one of those little things off.”)

The fear of breaking the computer is common in studies with older adults [Mayhorn, 2004]. In this age group, the feeling of anxiety is often the biggest barrier to learning [Delahaye, 2008] and the unfamiliar nature of the kit may cause some stress. Studies suggest that training can ease these anxieties by creating positive experiences for participants to build on [Cjaza et al, 1993]. In this introductory workshop there was little to build on, but a sec- ond or third session could have more easily incorporated free form activities. One participant noted during the last few minutes of the workshop, “I guess you can’t be too afraid to really bend these wires.” Presumably, in follow-up workshop, she would have been less reluctant to manipulate the materials.

In the initial workshops, participants were encouraged to follow the booklet in a more self-directed fashion, but they did not touch the kits without direct instruction. Ultimately, as the facilitator, I played a larger role than I had anticipated: I became more of a teacher than a coach, particularly in the first fifteen minutes of each workshop, when key concepts were introduced. The participants wanted to engage with me and ask questions—almost asking permission to complete an operation—rather than immerse themselves in exploration. This led to some productive group discussions about physical computing, but fewer individual discoveries by the participants.

A strict constructivist toolkit framework is not the right fit for an older adult audience. Several studies suggest that students who attended schools steeped in an instructivist tradition (in South East Asia and China) had difficulty learning in constructivist setting [Wright & Lander, 2003 and Catterick, 2007]. The subjects of this study may have been formally edu- cated in an era where instructivist approaches were the norm and the teachers were clear authority figures. Situating the participants in a group did help spark organic conversations and allowed the facilitator to play more of a coaching role, particularly when two users shared one computer.

Although many of the participants looked to the facilitator for help when problems arose, just as many worked to troubleshoot their own problems. When they did need assistance, I tried to emphasize the large role of debugging (and trial and error) in programming and physical computing. I also em- phasized that I was not testing them or judging their perfor- mance. Still, most users expressed a desire “get it right” the first time.

One study suggests that, among older adult learners over 55, the 55 to 65 age group prefers to “learn by doing,” while the older age groups both prefer to learn by watching and listen- ing [Truluck, 1999]. In these workshops, the participants in all age groups definitely preferred to watch me demonstrate (whether on the actual materials or with a larger visual aid) before attempting any new procedures. They did, however, extrapolate from familiar actions like inserting the color-cod- ed wires into the breadboard to complete a circuit. Not every step was explained as we went along, but the users were initially reluctant to experiment.

The Role of Life Experience

Would a rich variety of life experiences help older adults learn how to build a simple gadget? According to their survey responses, the participants were divided on this issue. The question was specific to the skills and hobbies they had listed in the pre-study survey. At least two participants indicated that certain hobbies would likely be helpful, but they weren’t activities in which they had personal experience.

This question suggests that around half of the participants had difficulty making a connection between their existing skills and experience and the act of using the kit. In post-workshop discussion, three participants specifically not- ed their surprise that they were able to complete the activi- ties. Prior knowledge, however, certainly helped every single user complete the simple circuit at the beginning of the work- shop. Every participant was familiar with such a circuit and used that knowledge to light the LED. They also used their skills with text editing software to use the Arduino program on the laptop.

Users were far less familiar with circuitry than expected. Only one subject, a man in the 65-70 age group, reported a strong familiarity with electronic components. I assumed the users would have a stronger base of knowledge in this area and more of a willingness to “poke around” inside their appliances. Their reaction to this question, on the survey and in discussion, was mixed.


Eight of the participants disagreed or strongly disagreed that they would tinker with a broken appliance. Despite the fact that only one participant claimed to be familiar with electronic components in the previous question, four different participants indicated their willingness to attempt an appliance repair. Of those four people, three had reported no familiarity with electronic components (the fourth selected the “neutral” option).


This response could indicate that these users did not see electronics knowledge as necessary to attempt a repair. In discussion, the users made clear distinctions between their ability to use a personal computer and their lack of familiar with circuits and basic electronics. In each discussion, participants cited computer literacy as a “necessity” for everyone, while electronics were a topic for a much smaller group of experts. Yet, 80% of participants agreed that they had a better understanding of programmable devices after the workshop and, in discussion, half of the participants noted that they had a better sense of how their gadgets work. Based on their experience making an interactive object, they constructed their own mental model of a system.

If this kit and workshop had been more firmly rooted in a constructivist framework, participants would have received a selection of materials without direct instruction. The sandbox format works well with learners who are eager to “dig in” to new materials. The older adults, however, preferred to listen and discuss rather than explore the kits through trial and error. They were extremely careful, checking with the facil- itator and each other before taking new steps. Participants constructed new knowledge through the process of making, despite their cautious approach. The results of these work- shops suggest that, when working with unfamiliar materials, older adults respond to a combination of instructionist and constructivist methods.

Workshop Procedure

widget2I led three workshops with three participants, two workshops with two people, and two workshops with just one participant. Fifteen people participated. Each workshop followed the format described below, with the exception of the first two sessions. These initial workshops were over one hour and featured potentiometers, servos, and Piezo buzzers. After observing user fatigue during these workshops, I edited both the booklet and kit components to focus only on the LED output and moisture sensor input.

Workshop Procedure

  1. Welcome the participants, review consent forms, hand out a pre-study survey.
  2. Using the booklet as a guide, begin a conversation about using microcontrollers, encouraging questions along the way. Main points include:  How is a microcontroller like a desktop computer or laptop? What do we mean by inputs and outputs? How are Makers currently using microcontrollers?
  3. Identify materials in the kit.
  4. Beginning with the simplest circuit possible, ask the participants to turn on the LED attached to a copper tape circuit by connecting the battery. Have the participants use other conductive materials to demonstrate how conductive thread or 22 gauge wire or snaps can form circuits.
  5. Discuss making a similar circuit with the Gemma, an LED and a battery pack. [The Gemmas are programmed to turn on an LED on pin 0, so that when the circuit is correctly wired, the light will go on.] Using a large visual aid, identify color-coded pins on the Gemma.
  6. Walk participants through the structure of the bread- board. Participants wire their own circuits.
  7.  Introduce the Arduino software. Using a poster featuring the code from the Blink sketch, step through each line of code and explain basic Arduino syntax.
  1. Outline the process of uploading the sketch to the Gemma by pressing the small reset button on the board, followed by clicking the upload button within a few seconds. LEDs should light for one second and turn off for one second.
  2. Discuss the variables in the code and have participants make their own changes in the Arduino environment, changing the rate of blinking.
  3. 10.Leaving the LED in place as an output, introduce the hygrometer as an input device. Returning to the Gemma diagram, point out the yellow input pin and the two red power pins as new additions to the wiring. Participants should be able to complete the circuit for the hygrometer in the same way they wired the LED, with minimal guidance.
  4. With the Soil Moisture sketch open in the Arduino environment, ask the users to upload the sketch as they had done previously. Due to the far more com- plex nature of this sketch, do not go through it line by line, but instead focus on the familiar part of the sketch that turns on the LED when the sensor is moist. Ask the participants how to make the hygrometer more effective by changing the sketch slightly. The users should change the code so that the LED lights up when the sensor is dry, indicating that the plant needs to be watered. Use a moist paper towel to test the sensor, or a small potted plant. Ask participants to come up with other extensions for this sensor.
  5. Ask for questions and feedback. Distribute the post- study surveys. Lead group discussion reflecting on the experience.


Design Guidelines:

  1. The kit must be open source and DIY-friendly. No element that should require special manufacturing (including expensive or relatively inaccessible processes like 3D printing or laser cutting).
  2. The specific needs and physical limitations (deteriorating vision and fine motor skills) of an older audience must be taken into account.
  3.  The kit should include the same basic elements of other electronic toolkits (a microcontroller, inputs and outputs, necessary cables, and instructions).
  4. The cost of the kit must be lower than Arduino starter kits offered by major hobbyist retailers (less than $50).

Kit Contentsphoto (62)

Each participant was provided with a kit that contained:

To recreate the modifications in this kit, you’ll need a soldering iron and solder, a wire stripper, and double-sided tape. Solder the “male” side of a snap to each of the 6 pads on the back of the Gemma. (Check out this tutorial on how to solder the snaps.)

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Print out the covers for the front and back of the Gemma. Cut them out and use a hole punch to create half circles for the snaps to fit comfortably around the cover. Attach to the back of the Gemma, carefully matching up the black “wedge” with the GND pin. Repeat the procedure for the front cover, again using a hole punch to cut out a space for the reset button.



Next, create the wires with snaps on the end. Strip away about 1/2 inch of insulation on the wire.

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Using a needlenose pliers, twist the end of the wire into a small circle shape, so that the wire fits neatly into the female half of the snap. Solder the wire in place.

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To create the breadboard, use the wire stripper to cut short lengths of wire in each color, leaving about 3/8 inch insulation in the center. Bend the “legs” down and insert.



ComputerClassElectronic toolkits are an increasingly popular part of STEM curricula. From LEGO Mindstorms to littleBits, researchers pour considerable resources into developing the most effective learning tools for a young audience. Older adults have largely been left out trends like making interactive objects. They are pushed, instead, toward the most basic computer literacy: “Intro to Facebook” classes at senior centers or cell phones with “big buttons.”

No one has addressed the possibility of introducing older adults to physical computing, even though the barriers are now low enough to accommodate elementary school students. If the constructivist approach of these kits for children creates deeper understanding of computers, would this framework be effective for lifelong learning? This project applies the constructivist toolkit model to an older adult audience.

Older adults are a diverse group that is often marginalized from technologies. Much of the literature on technology education and the elderly revolves around their supposed lack of knowledge, physical abilities or interest. Yet, researchers who have engaged in participatory design with seniors have found diversity in opinions, lifestyles, and willingness to learn and use new technologies.

IMG_2840Senior citizens, in the so-called “third age” of life, are a great audience for projects that incorporate fabrication and programming. Although they were likely introduced to personal computers later in life, and may not be as fluent as younger digital natives, seniors possess other skills, developed over a lifetime of work and hobbies. This project aims to determine whether this rich reserve of life experience impacts older adults’ interest in and ability to use electronic construction kits.

This project reviews related work in gerontechnology and the development of electronic toolkits in the constructivist tradition. A toolkit was designed, based on Arduino starter kits, but modified to address the needs of older users. The kit was used in a study with senior citizens in a one-hour workshop with a knowledgeable facilitator. By making simple adjustments to inexpensive off-the-shelf materials, physical computing can be made more accessible to lifelong learners in an informal educational setting.