Monday, 18 January 2010

Problem Solving with Robots

Scott Turner and Gary Hill from the Division of Computing (along with Jonathan Adams from the Division of Engineering on a related project) have been investigating teaching and developing problem solving skills as a first step developing programming skills through the use of LEGO-based robots and graphics based programming.

Work on problem-solving has been on-going in the School of Science and Technology (was School of Applied Sciences) for the last four years looking at the concept of teaching and developing problem-solving first, then programming. The main vehicle for developing the problem-solving skills has been LEGO Mindstorms robotics kits and series of gradually more challenging robot-based tasks.

Lawhead et al (2003) stated that robots “…provide entry level programming students with a physical model to visually demonstrate concepts” and “the most important benefit of using robots in teaching introductory courses is the focus provided on learning language independent, persistent truths about programming and programming techniques. Robots readily illustrate the idea of computation as interaction”. Synergies can be made with our work and those one on pre-object programming and simulation of robots for teaching programming as a visual approach to the teaching of the widely used programming language  Java.

The main benefits that the students stated of this approach was they  believe robots provide a method to visually and physically see the outcome of a problem. The approach taken the module has been visually-orientated. The appropriateness of this seems to be borne out by the student comments. Student satisfaction  for a module based around this approach is over 92%. One of the comments made was that the linking of the problem-solving robot task and the programming assignment was liked. This feedback is similar to that reported by other authors when teaching programming using robots (Williams et al, 2003).  There is enough scope in this approach to have different levels of complexity/functionality within an assignment task offering a basic ‘pass’ level for a particular task, but also the scope for those students that desire more of a challenge.

Lawhead PB, Bland CG, Barnes DJ, Duncan ME, Goldweber M, Hollingsworth RG,
Schep M (2003), A Road Map for Teaching Introductory Programming Using
LEGO Mindstorms Robots SIGCSE Bulletin, 35(2): 191-201.
Williams AB (2003) The Qualitative Impact of Using LEGO MINDSTORMS Robot
to Teach Computer Engineering IEEE Trans. EducVol. 46 pp 206.


  • Turner S, Hill G, Adams J (2009) "Robots in problem solving in programming" 9th 1-day Teaching of Programming Workshop, University of Bath, 6th April 2009.  
  • Turner S and Hill G(2008) "Robots within the Teaching of Problem-Solving" ITALICS vol. 7 No. 1 June 2008 pp 108-119 ISSN 1473-7507 
  • Turner S and Adams J (2008) "Robots and Problem Solving" 9th Higher Education Academy-ICS Annual Conference, Liverpool Hope University, 26th August - 28th August 2008. pp. 14 ISBN 978-0-9559676-0-3. 
  • Adams, J. and Turner, S., (2008) Problem Solving and Creativity for Undergraduate Computing and Engineering students: the use of robots as a development tool Creating Contemporary Student Learning Environments 2008, Northampton, UK. 
  • Adams, J. and Turner, S., (2008) Problem Solving and Creativity for Undergraduate Engineers: process or product? International Conference on Innovation, Good Practice and Research in Engineering Education 2008, Loughborough, UK. 
  • Adams, J., Turner, S., Kaczmarczyk, S., Picton, P. and Demian, P.,(2008). Problem Solving and Creativity for Undergraduate Engineers: findings of an action research project involving robots International Conference on Engineering Education ICEE 2008, Budapest, Hungary. 
  • Turner S and Hill G(2007) Robots in Problem-Solving and Programming 8th Annual Conference of the Subject Centre for Information and Computer Sciences, University of Southampton, 28th - 30th August 2007, pp 82-85 ISBN 0-978-0-9552005-7-1 
  • Turner S (2007) Developing problem-solving teaching material based upon Microsoft Robotics Studio. 8th Annual Conference of the Subject Centre for Information and Computer Sciences, University of Southampton, 28th - 30th August 2007 pp 151 ISBN 0-978-0-9552005-7-1 
  • Turner S (2007) Developing problem-solving teaching materials based upon Microsoft Robotics Studio. Innovative Teaching Development Fund Dissemination Day 1st March 2007 Microsoft:London 
  • Turner S and Hill G (2006) The Inclusion Of Robots Within The Teaching Of Problemsolving: Preliminary Results Proceedings of 7th Annual Conference of the ICS HE Academy Trinity College, Dublin, 29th - 31st August 2006 Proceedings pg 241-242 ISBN 0-9552005-3-9 

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Education and Employability

Rashmi Dravid from the Division of Computing at the University of Northampton has been investigating the application of problem-based learning to an aspect of computing, aiming to enhance the employability of these students. Rashmi has describe this as "The problem-oriented nature of computer networks lends itself to problem-based learning (PBL), which is claimed to integrate many of the requirements stated by graduate recruiters into the learning experiences of students, and therefore aid employability.

The funnel-approach [1] to problem-based learning is used.  The research differs from the existing PBL interventions in the discipline, by using a step-wise induction problem-based learning, using problem-solving learning as a pedestal.

The problems provide the context to relate subject matter content to real-world situations and motivate students to make connections between knowledge and its applications.
The pedagogic framework is implemented for the three computer networking modules on the three-year undergraduate degree programme. It uses traditional lecture-led practical work for the first year module, followed by focused development of problem-solving skills for structured problems for second year module, leading to problem based learning of complex, ill-structured and interdisciplinary problems for the third year module.

The learning environment integrates ‘relate’ - emphasizing team work and ‘create’ - providing creativity and ownership of learning process, for active student engagement and encourages rehearsing wide ranging employability skills in a supervised context. Problem solutions form the portfolio work and are used for formative and summative assessments. Team work using collaborative tools such as blogs, wikis and discussion boards is encouraged. Students’ reflection on their learning, integrated with portfolio development, is reviewed to evaluate and modulate instructional resources and delivery and to create a peer support network.

Evaluation of the approach using student feedback, module survey, student attainment and engagement with the modules has demonstrated positive take-on of this student-centered active learning approach. The students reported real-world connections between concepts and contexts, found their engagement in the context-driven tasks interesting and productive, and identified connected sequences of concepts across the contexts studied.

Lessons learnt from the first run of this approach have brought up issues relating effective use of technology tools such as, blogs, wikis and discussion boards for collaboration outside classroom and would feed into the future delivery of modules."


[1]     Savin-Baden, M., Howell Major C., Foundations of Problem-based Learning. Maidenhead, U.K. Open University Press (2004).

Soft skills for scientists: not a soft option

Within the School of Science and Technology at the University of Northampton, Rashmi Dravid working with Andrea Duncan from DELTA-E, University of Northampton are looking at the personal and development of the 'soft skills' for Computing students. This builds on some earlier work by Jonathan Adams (School of Science and Technology) and Andrea on developing these soft skills in Engineering students.

The following is taken from the abstract "Soft skills for scientist: not a soft option" by Andrea Duncan
"Engineering and technology sectors have long recognised the importance of softer skills for successful career progression, as indicated in most job vacancy specifications, and in professional competency standards, for example, Engineering Council UK and the new framework of the British Computer Society. HE programmes in these fields however sometimes provide minimal support for the personal and professional development processes which encourage student awareness and articulation of such skills. There can be a tendency to regard reflection and self-analysis as low priority, yet students readily acknowledge their need for support in gaining a clearer understanding of personal strengths and qualities, and presenting themselves more effectively to others.

To facilitate these processes, experience strongly emphasises the use of discipline-specific resources, ideally linked to curriculum tasks. At The University of Northampton the latest in a series of on-line packs funded by several HEA Subject Centres has provided a series of twelve personal development tasks to support engineering students in such activities. A further project to develop and extend these for computing programmes has included initial workshops with levels 5-7, and resulted in positive engagement and feedback. Sessions include prompts to individual thinking and self-questioning, paired conversations, and sharing insights briefly with the wider class group. Such dialogic reflection uncovers new perspectives on different learning experiences, and helps clarify strengths and the transferability of skills, resulting in greater self-awareness and self confidence. "

Problem solving and creativity in Engineering

Jonathan Adams, Phil Picton and Stefan Kaczmarczyk from the School of Science and Technology, University of Northampton in collaboration with Peter Demian from Loughborough University have recently published a paper in the Journal  Enhancing the Learner Experience in Higher Education entitled "Problem solving and creativity in Engineering: turning novices into professionals".


Recent UK and European benchmarks for both undergraduate and professional engineers highlight the importance of problem solving skills. They additionally identify creativity as an important capacity alongside problem solving for both novices and professionals. But, how can we develop and encourage these important skills in undergraduate engineers?

For many years researchers have explored how the differences between novices and experts might show educators techniques for improving the problem solving abilities of their students. Whilst it is often appreciated that knowledge and experience have a large influence on problem solving ability, it is not feasible to develop these fully in a three or four year degree course. There are, however, a number of other capacities relating to problem solving process skills that can be usefully developed, such as strategy, attitude and motivation.

A number of semi-structured interviews have been undertaken with engineering undergraduates at The University of Northampton, Loughborough University and Birmingham University in order to explore these issues. Analysis has been in the form of a phenomenographic study. The interviews extend their questioning and comparison beyond problem solving skills into creative thinking. This paper provides a brief summary of previous published research alongside interesting findings from the interviews. Early findings have been used to inform an action research project to develop a problem-based learning (PBL) module to improve creative problem solving skills in undergraduate engineers. Emerging themes that have been identified include: identification of problem solving processes in the case of professionals as opposed to simply identifying skills required in the case of students, confusion with the concept of ‘creativity’ in the context of engineering; issues with motivation and ownership with regard to academic problems and significance being placed on real life activities involving groupwork as an effective way of teaching and learning creative problem solving.

The full paper can be found at:


Adams J, Picton P, Kaczmarczyk S, Demian P (2009) "Problem solving and creativity in Engineering: turning novices into professionals" Enhancing the Learner Experience in Higher Education pp. 4-8 Volume 1, Number 1,  ISSN 1234-1234

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Audio Feedback

Recently I have been 'playing' with giving feedback to students and other members of staff as audio files. Trying both making recordings using either handheld recorders or Audacity ( I was trying it as part of the Sounds Good project (
The first attempt looked at giving a summary assessment feedback as an audio file, alongside individual written feedback to a group of first year students. It end up being about four minutes and was definitely more detailed than it would have been if I had written it. It had an unexpected outcome. It was recorded using a handheld recorder and my first time doing it, the volume varied as my hand moved. Some of the student's thought this was amusing, but they must have listened to it to know!
Second area was giving feedback on staff portfolio for a lecturer training course. It is good for this as the level of detail expected was quite high and one member of staff's portfolio was electronic so seemed appropriate. It was quicker and for me I feel I gave more detailed feedback.
Currently I am using it to give feedback on group work again to first year student and storing it in the groups own area on NILE.
Audio feedback is not new but it was fairly new to me and I would recommend it as something to try. A good place to start is perhaps the recent A Word In Your Ear 2009 Conference ( or the Case Study produced for the Engineering Subject Centre.

Turner S (2009)"Initial experience of using audio feedback for general assignment feedback" A Word In Your Ear 2009 Sheffield Hallam University, 18 December 2009 pg 12. Audio file discussing this can be found at: