Belhaven Hill School

Co-ed Boarding & Day School for ages 5-13

Are Robotics, 3-D Printing and Computing on Your Prep School's Curriculum?

Are Robotics, 3-D Printing and Computing on Your Prep School's Curriculum?

Article by Mr Olly Langton published in Service Parents' Guide to Boarding Schools in September 2021

The ability to understand 21st century technology is the first step in being able to control the creative power of computers. The challenge for all of us is to be the master of, rather than the slave to, the creative power of computers. There is no doubt that prep schools must meet this challenge head on if we are to fulfill a leading role as educators of the next generation.

The perception that this challenge involves the adoption of a completely new set of skills is one that needs to change.

In fact, much of what we require to learn from computational thinking has been championed by prep schools for generations: resilience, perseverance, dedication, focus, accuracy.

The challenge with Computing education is that we do not know what the technology will be when our children leave formal education in a decade’s time.  What we do know is that almost all roles will use technology so knowing how technology works will be an essential prerequisite for a successful career.  Key to our children’s success will be an understanding of computational thinking and having a life-long interest in Computing. 

The Raspberry Pi Foundation explains that ‘computational thinking is solving problems by breaking it down into its individual parts and building an algorithm to solve the problem’.  This area of Computer Science encourages children to be creative. Prep schools provide the ideal environments in which to develop creativity. Their excellent pastoral care and nurturing communities, small class sizes and dedicated staff provide the perfect opportunity to experiment and ‘fail safely’.

To develop computational thinking, children should have regular access to physical computing so that they can see the results in tangible, rather than abstract form: to achieve this, Belhaven Hill School, the boarding and day prep school in East Lothian, has invested in Spheros, Micro:bits and Raspberry Pis.

Sphero Robots

The younger pupils use the Sphero robots, spherical robots which can be programmed on iPads using a block-based programming language.  Creating routes for the Sphero to navigate provides the opportunity for creative problem-solving and gives children that feeling of mastery through ‘live’ experience. The pupils can also make the Sphero robots communicate with each other, allowing the development of simple communication protocols, as well as responding to events such as crashing into a wall!  This ability to break a task down into its composite parts lies at the heart of computational thinking.

Older children at Belhaven Hill use their iPads to program Micro:bits. These are £12 microcontroller boards specifically designed to teach children physical computing. Not only can they use a similar block based language to the Sphero to program the Micro:bits’ onboard components (such as buttons, compasses, and LED screens), but they can also add components such as a Servo.

Physical computing offers children the opportunity to be creative with their solutions to problems. Alongside programming, children can be introduced to other skills such as soldering, Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM). 

In January this year, Belhaven Hill School invested in a 3-D printer to spice up its remote learning. The 3-D printer has created real excitement among pupils who have used it to produce chess set pieces, a new trophy for the school’s Stop-Motion Animation Competition during lockdown, and to make other familiar items.  This has already created a legacy in which the children see themselves as engineers.

‘Digital Makers’

Belhaven’s goal is to create a cohort of ‘Digital Makers’ who can design bespoke parts for a project, connect them to a programmable device and use them to solve a problem. The pupils might construct a chariot to connect to a Sphero so that a favourite teddy can be transported around a dorm; or they might programme a Micro:bit to create a self-opening bin for a visually-impaired relative at home.

Prep schools can be the perfect environment for the trial-and-error approach to working with computers. Our children need these digital skills to achieve a greater level of proficiency in all aspects of their education.

Prep schools need to encourage failure to a greater degree than has previously been allowed. The ‘fear of failure’ inculcated in part by the exam culture of modern schooling, must be addressed as a first step in removing the shackles from our pupils’ progress. An immersive approach to the adoption of technology for staff and pupils, forced upon us by successive lockdowns, has produced a significant increase in the pace of progress.

Now is the time to forge ahead and prepare our children for the challenges that they will confront at the next stage of their education and in the wider world beyond. Robotics, 3D-Printing and Computing definitely need to be part of a modern prep school’s curriculum.

Thanks to Bulldog Publishing who published this article in Service Parents' Guide to Boarding Schools in September 2021. You can read the published version of this article in this pdf ‘Using robotics, 3D printing and computing in a prep school’.

For more on the Service Parents Guide visit