PrimarySecondaryDesign & Technology

Not Only Can We Do Robotics In D&T – We Have To

If schools don't embrace the digital revolution beyond computer-aided design and manufacture, they are failing to provide fundamental aspects of a technological education

Andy Mitchell
by Andy Mitchell
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PrimaryDesign & Technology

Designing and making robots in design and technology schools is nothing new. In fact, the inclusion of associated technologies – electronics, structures and mechanics – dates back to the 1960s. This, of course, was before the personal computer revolution and the ubiquitous use of microprocessor control that now permeates our lives.

Robotics is all about building control and a degree of autonomy (intelligence) into useful devices. Devices that can react predictably to changes as they occur. Back then and still now, products typically included models of fairground rides and level crossings.

Who would have thought, with the introduction of the English National Curriculum design and technology programmes of study back in 1999, that within a few more years, the updated content would require all young people by the age of 14 to: apply computing and use electronics to embed intelligence in products that respond to inputs (for example, sensors) and control outputs (for example, actuators) using programmable components (for example, microcontrollers)? The National Curriculum in England: design and technology programmes of study (2013)

Moreover, this needs to be taught when designing and making. If we are honest, it is this aspect of D&T in most schools that remains least developed and most under resourced.

Unless schools and their D&T departments embrace the digital revolution and what that means beyond using computer aided design and computer aided manufacture, then they are failing to provide fundamental aspects of a technological education for all young people.

The world that they will occupy will become increasingly dependent on robotics. With artificial intelligence pervading if not replacing more and more current jobs – and that includes the professions such as law and medicine – it is incumbent on us to make sure that the technological education we provide reflects this.

As a nation, we will however still need human beings to undertake the intellectual and fulfil the practical and technological roles associated with constantly improving it and keeping the technology running. That is why providing through D&T activity, an insight into the emerging career opportunities is so important.

Getting started in schools

So if you are in a school that currently does little in this area, what should you be doing? Well the first thing your department needs to be doing is developing a vision for what robotics and control could look like in your school.

Importantly, in order to fulfil that vision, you should consider what needs to be done, who needs to be convinced, what investments need to be made, what CPD will be necessary and how you might attract and secure the resource to enable it. It will need to happen in a gradual, sustained way – but you can’t hang about!

So, where is the expertise in your school already? Can your IT colleagues help? What do you know about systems out there that could be used to get you started – their ease of use, accompanying support and of course, price? Could you prioritise this as an area for departmental professional development? Have you engaged with the Design and Technology Association and taken advantage of the advice and support it provides to members?

Recently I have attended two school robotics events. The first was the FIRST LEGO league international finals held at Bath University. It was attended by a staggering 1,000 young people, some from as far away as Brazil.

There were UK teams too, and it all served to prove how animated, creative and involved young people can get when provided with challenges and robotics equipment to explore. Should you wish to explore the LEGO route, free support and advice can be accessed through

Secondly, I attended an event at Finham Park School, in Coventry.

The D&T Association has been working to support the development of D&T in schools in Shanghai and this has included the use of control technology.

The same animatronics project (available from the D&T Association) was undertaken by schools in both countries and they met up at Finham Park to present what they had done.

The schools had been given training in how to use the very accessible Crumble micro controllers available from and peripherals used in robotics such as servomotors, switches and LEDs.

Some of the outcomes also used the flexible robotics system available from The results were outstanding and the event provided rich opportunities for cultural exchange.

One can’t help thinking that if the Chinese are developing D&T education in their schools, taking as their starting point the use of high tech resources, then maybe we should sit up and listen. Further work will follow, that involves online collaboration between schools through the use of video conferencing and social media.

Reusable resources

Of course you can’t do this type of activity without the kit, and lack of resources is often the reason put forward for not adopting developments. But this can be a lame excuse and often hides other issues; most notably, confidence and experience.

Ignoring the need for this kind of education is not an option, and teachers should be aware that there is support out there. D&T has to move on if it is to have a future in the UK, and not be overtaken by innovative work in other countries.

Perhaps for too long, we have tended to define the subject as being concerned predominantly with making things that result in artefacts to take home. I suggest that we can no longer afford to do this all the time.

Whereas I fully agree that part of a pupil’s experience should be about manufacturing high-quality crafted designs, some of which may go home, this is restricting practice.

The £250 investment in microcontrollers etc made to enable each school to undertake the animatronics challenge was capital not consumable investment. Most component parts other than those laser cut from plywood and acrylic or 3D printed are reusable by the next class.

We need to rethink the nature of some of the activity we include and rethink how we spend the shrinking financial resources we are allocated.

The new simple to use and low cost programmable resources now available are opening up a world that in the past has been the prerogative of ‘techies’. Now everyone can engage, and it’s vital that in schools we provide that opportunity.

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