Skip to main content

Can physical computing help to engage young people in sustainability issues?

Home > Articles > This Article

Energy in Schools is a government-funded initiative which gives schools free equipment and learning materials to teach pupils about the Internet of Things (IoT) and how IoT sensors can be used to solve real-world sustainability issues.

The School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University is working in partnership with Samsung Electronics UK, Centre of Sustainable Energy, and My Utility Genius to develop Energy in Schools, an innovative educational IoT platform for schools that incorporates the Samsung SmartThings device control platform and micro:bits. The Energy in Schools project includes the development of a learning portal which will provide hands-on physical computing learning materials for Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3. These materials are aligned to England’s national curriculum, aiming to engage learners through a multi-disciplinary approach to learning about IoT.

The project is currently in its third phase, following on from preliminary
research carried out in phases one and two, which incorporated a participatory design process involving different stakeholder groups within the school including pupils, teachers, and energy managers.

Preliminary research

The first phase of the project was a pilot in a secondary school to better understand the school working environment and explore the issues schools face regarding energy use, with the aim to use a co-design approach to produce a solution. In the second phase, two primary schools and one secondary school took part. The project team held a series of workshops, interviews, and energy and behavioural audits in order to identify barriers to behaviour change and motivators.

Findings from phases one and two include the challenges to rolling out a project such as this, including:

  • Working to the cultures of the school and school timetables
  • Teacher workloads
  • Confidence in skills, and knowledge in computing education
  • Working within the boundaries of IT infrastructures in schools

These challenges are now informing the design of the Energy in Schools
platform and learning resources, which are being continually refined based on feedback from schools.

Making resources meaningful and easy to use

The project team aims to develop practical learning materials that engage pupils with IoT technology in a meaningful way, whilst taking into consideration the barriers to entry when learning computing. The research highlighted that one of the key motivators is meaningful learning: giving the pupils a sense of purpose as to why they are learning computing. Physical computing offers learners an opportunity to get creative, with many of the participating schools’ pupils highlighting that they “loved the micro:bits”. Framed in a meaningful approach, computing education has the potential to become more impactful, but challenges arise if materials are not:

  • Accessible
  • Consistent
  • Meaningful
  • Encouraging of problem-solving

Hence in the project’s third phase, the team is working to make lessons more accessible and the code block editor more intuitive and user-friendly for teachers and pupils who are new to the platform.

“This is the sort of thing children should be doing in primary school,
fundamentally. [...] Whether it is always possible is another matter. I think the problem-solving skills — the critical thinking, debugging, all these sorts of things — are definitely the way that children need to be taught how to think.” - participating primary school teacher

The Energy in Schools team is currently recruiting schools to take part in the third phase of the project. If you would like to take part or find out more, please visit