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  • Writer's pictureMaria Angela Pellegrino

Smart Object Co-Design with Learners

Introduction - Empowering Learners in the Design of Smart Cities and Objects: A Path to 21st-Century Skills and Technological Innovation

The concept of a smart city refers to the "research and identification of intelligent solutions that allow cities to improve the quality of services provided to citizens" (Clarival et al., 2021). In general, smart cities and smart objects perceive the state of the surrounding environment, process incoming information, and interpret external conditions, taking actions to solve specific problems (Zulkarnaen et al., 2019) by leveraging the architecture of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) (Cocchia, 2014) (Sunyaev, 2020).


While there is significant interest in making our cities smarter, as demonstrated by the media attention and government interest, what smart cities are and how they are designed remains rather vague for people without a technical background (Simonofski et al., 2019) (Clarival et al., 2021). Recent academic research acknowledges the need to empower citizens to play an active role in smart city design (Hollands et al., 2020) (Wanderley et al., 2019). This implies exposing citizens to the technical components on which smart cities are based on and helping them understand how these systems work (Gianni et al., 2017) (Wolff et al., 2020) while communicating complex concepts in a language understandable to those without a technical background. Academic literature has revealed many methods for enabling the participation of non-technical users, such as the collaborative creation of public services by coordinating citizens and city authorities (Peacock et al., 2020) (Goodman et al., 2020) (Wolff et al., 2017), ensuring end-users involvement and inclusive solutions (Kbar et al., 2018) via interactive workshops and online initiatives (Simonofski et al., 2017).


When discussing citizen participation, it is often assumed that citizens are adults. However, children and young people are an essential group of citizens and should be sensitized to get familiar with and design smart solutions (Hennig, 2014) (Clarival et al., 2021). Involving learners in smart object design offers several advantages, such as the development of technical skills, especially in terms of computational thinking and programming (Gomes et al., 2019), awareness of the role that even the youngest citizen can play in improving and enhancing our city, and the development of essential skills for personal and professional life as adults (Chawla et al., 2001). These goals go beyond the narrow idea of preparing more competent programmers and engineers, as they represent a broader approach to enhancing learners' problem-solving, creativity, communication, and abstract thinking skills (Gomes et al., 2019). It is crucial and our duty as educators and researchers not only to educate today's learners in 21st-century skills but also to empower them to design and contribute to their technological future (Kinnula et al., 2019). Learners should play an active role in the design process, understanding, critically reflecting and driving the innovation of smart solutions (Iversen et al., 2017) (Iivari et al., 2018).


In the context of the design of smart cities and smart objects, learners are typically involved in project-based learning that is based on even complex tasks, stimulating questions, or problems that require participants to design, experiment with problem-solving, and make decisions. Project-based learning introduces computational thinking so that participants can learn through authentic scenarios in an iterative approach to creating realistic products with programming and robotics (Bakala et al., 2021)(Gomes et al., 2019). Thus, learners actively participate in the construction, creation, and customization of everyday objects to solve personal and socially significant problems, promoting active and meaningful learning (Gomes et al., 2019).


SteamCity Commitment and Resources

To enable moderators and educators to propose activities related to smart cities with learners during formal and non-formal activities without requiring specific technical skills, the SteamCity project aims to systematize and release educational materials in an open format, both in terms of protocols and tools. In the context of co-designing smart objects, the released educational material consists of a protocol articulated over at least 6 hours spread across 3 days and four phases widely recognized in the literature (Thoring et al., 2011):

  • Familiarization or exploration phase to acquire the terminology related to smart cities, smart objects, sensors, and actuators.

  • Ideation phase to conceive and conceptualize new smart ideas.

  • Programming phase to program intelligent solutions.

  • Prototyping phase to simulate the behaviour of the proposed solution.

Open-source operative manual

The manual is intended for educators to enable them to moderate activities in the classroom or during extracurricular educational activities, preferably conducted in person. It alternates between frontal lessons to learn concepts interactively, individual laboratory activities, and collective reflection sessions. The educational objective of the programming part is to acquire skills in computational thinking and programming for the conscious use and understanding of loops, and simple and complex conditions using Boolean operators, and to apply these learned skills in concrete projects for the creation of intelligent objects capable of supporting or obstructing autonomous vehicles.


The manual is composed of:

  • Preparation manual: a deliberately detailed section for the educator to be read and internalized before proposing the activity to students. It aims to detail the protocol to follow and provide a series of reflection points to understand the reasons for proposing the activity in this way, learning objectives, customization possibilities, and warnings regarding sensitive aspects to be addressed and managed, such as common mistakes and easily misunderstood concepts.

  • Checklist to verify that all the materials are ready.

  • Physical and digital material for moderating the activity, including a compact version of the protocol, questionnaires, and support materials.

The evaluation part of the activity is based on monitoring and assessing engagement and learning. The evaluation procedure is based on:

  • A questionnaire for assessing engagement at the end of the activity, asking participants to self-assess the perceived simplicity and level of fun.

  • Observers' diaries to keep track of engagement observed by moderators and/or external observers, with notes taken during the activities or immediately after.

  • Questionnaires conducted before and after the programming activities to assess competence in understanding and producing code.

  • Evaluation of the outcome submitted during each programming stage.

Details of the experimentation

Going into detail about the protocol, the following are the phases of experimentation:

  • Phase 1 - Familiarization and Ideation: The workshop begins with the administration of entry questionnaires and an introductory session, taking approximately 15 minutes. The primary tool used for this step is the “Expectations and Participant Profiling Questionnaire”. Moving on to the second step, a 30-minute familiarization process ensues, employing sensor and actuator cards similar to those used in the memory game. During this phase, the concept of smart objects, capable of autonomously responding to external stimuli via sensors and actuators, is introduced with practical examples to concretize the exploration. Step 3, lasting 60 minutes, leads participants into the ideation phase, facilitated by the ideation board and object, sensor, and actuator cards. This stage is conducted individually, with a hands-on approach, and presents the mission of designing smart objects that can either support or obstruct autonomous vehicles. Finally, Step 4, which lasts 15 minutes, marks the conclusion of activities, focusing on collecting work and engaging in a brief reflection.

  • Phase 2 - Implementation: The second phase is a structured progression. It begins with Step 1, a 15-minute administration of a learning questionnaire. Step 2 introduces loops in a 10-minute frontal lesson using MakeCode, featuring guided examples of increasing complexity and interactive engagement through questions and challenges. This step covers various loop types, including absence (START block), infinite loops (FOREVER), finite repetition (FOR loop), and conditional loops (WHILE). Step 3 involves a 15-minute hands-on, individual practice with loops, followed by a concise 5-minute collective reflection in the fourth step. Moving forward, the fifth step dedicates 10 minutes to another frontal lesson using MakeCode, introducing simple conditions and comparisons with interactive student engagement. Examples showcase the use of IF and ELSE with different sensors and actuators to inspire creativity. Step 6 provides 20 minutes for hands-on, individual exploration of simple conditions and comparisons. Finally, step 7 concludes with a 10-minute collective reflection.

  • Phase 3 - Continuation of implementation: The final phase starts with the first step which is a 15-minute frontal lesson via MakeCode. This phase introduces complex conditions through guided examples, progressing incrementally in complexity and employing Boolean operators like AND, OR, and NOT. Following this, the second step engages participants for 25 minutes in individual, hands-on practice with complex conditions. Step 3 provides a 30-minute collective reflection moment, leading to the fourth step in which learners can refine their hands-on ideas individually in 30 minutes. The phase ends with the final step, involving a 10-minute administration of the Learning and engagement exit questionnaire.

Wrap-up

Being surrounded by a constantly evolving digital reality and the pressure to make our cities smarter, all citizens, regardless of age and technical skills, must learn to master the tools that the digital world provides and make an active contribution to the proposal and design of smart objects. The STEAMCity project aims to provide all the necessary tools to enable educators to lead the training and learning of their learners. Specifically, the mobility cluster of the project proposes a protocol for co-designing smart objects capable of assisting or obstructing autonomous vehicles. The protocol summarized in this article is described in detail in an educator's manual, freely accessible to all interested moderators. It contains practical and operational guidelines to enable easy reproducibility and fair comparison between similar activities. All aspects suggested in the protocol are motivated and justified by scientific literature and/or field experimentation, accompanied by opportunities for customization and suggested methods and tools for execution and evaluation of the results obtained during the activity execution.

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