Repair cafés in computing education | Hello World #19

Many technology items are disposed of each year, either because they are broken, are no longer needed, or have been upgraded. Researchers from Germany have identified this as an opportunity to develop a scheme of work for Computing, while at the same time highlighting the importance of sustainability in hardware and software use. They hypothesised that by repairing defective devices, students would come to understand better how these devices work, and therefore meet some of the goals of their curriculum.

A smartphone with the back cover taken off so it can be repaired.

The research team visited three schools in Germany to deliver Computing lessons based around the concept of a repair café, where defective items are repaired or restored rather than thrown away. This idea was translated into a series of lessons about using and repairing smartphones. Learners first of all explored the materials used in smartphones and reflected on their personal use of these devices. They then spent time moving around three repair workstations, examining broken smartphones and looking at how they could be repaired or repurposed. Finally, learners reflected on their own ecological footprint and what they had learnt about digital hardware and software.

An educational repair café

In the classroom, repair workstations were set up for three different categories of activity: fixing cable breaks, fixing display breaks, and tinkering to upcycle devices. Each workstation had a mentor to support learners in investigating faults themselves by using the question prompt, “Why isn’t this feature or device working?” At the display breaks and cable breaks workstations, a mentor was on hand to provide guidance with further questions about the hardware and software used to make the smartphone work. On the other hand, the tinkering workstation offered a more open-ended approach, asking learners to think about how a smartphone could be upcycled to be used for a different purpose, such as a bicycle computer. It was interesting to note that students visited each of the three workstations equally.

Two girls solder physical computing components in a workshop.
Getting hands-on with hardware through physical computing activities can be very engaging for learners.

The feedback from the participants showed there had been a positive impact in prompting learners to think about the sustainability of their smartphone use. Working with items that were already broken also gave them confidence to explore how to repair the technology. This is a different type of experience from other Computing lessons, in which devices such as laptops or tablets are provided and are expected to be carefully looked after. The researchers also asked learners to complete a questionnaire two weeks after the lessons, and this showed that 10 of the 67 participants had gone on to repair another smartphone after taking part in the lessons.

Links to computing education

The project drew on a theory called duality reconstruction that has been developed by a researcher called Carsten Schulte. This theory argues that in computing education, it is equally important to teach learners about the function of a digital device as about the structure. For example, in the repair café lessons, learners discovered more about the role that smartphones play in society, as well as experimenting with broken smartphones to find out how they work. This brought a socio-technical perspective to the lessons that helped make the interaction between the technology and society more visible.

A young girl solders something at a worktop while a man looks over her shoulder.
It’s important to make sure young people know how to work safely with electronic and physical computing components.

Using this approach in the Computing classroom may seem counter-intuitive when compared to the approach of splitting the curriculum into topics and teaching each topic sequentially. However, the findings from this project suggest that learners understand better how smartphones work when they also think about how they are manufactured and used. Including societal implications of computing can provide learners with useful contexts about how computing is used in real-world problem-solving, and can also help to increase learners’ motivation for studying the subject.

Working together

The final aspect of this research project looked at collaborative problem-solving. The lessons were structured to include time for group work and group discussion, to acknowledge and leverage the range of experiences among learners. At the workstations, learners formed small groups to carry out repairs. The paper doesn’t mention whether these groups were self-selecting or assigned, but the researchers did carry out observations of group behaviours in order to evaluate whether the collaboration was effective. In the findings, the ideal group size for the repair workstation activity was either two or three learners working together. The researchers noticed that in groups of four or more learners, at least one learner would become disinterested and disengaged. Some groups were also observed taking part in work that wasn’t related to the task, and although no further details are given about the nature of this, it is possible that the groups became distracted.

The findings from this project suggest that learners understand better how smartphones work when they also think about how they are manufactured and used.

Further investigation into effective pedagogies to set group size expectations and maintain task focus would be helpful to make sure the lessons met their learning objectives. This research was conducted as a case study in a small number of schools, and the results indicate that this approach may be more widely helpful. Details about the study can be found in the researchers’ paper (in German).

Repair café start-up tips

If you’re thinking about setting up a repair café in your school to promote sustainable computing, either as a formal or informal learning activity, here are ideas on where to begin:

  • Connect with a network of repair cafés in your region; a great place to start is repaircafe.org
  • Ask for volunteers from your local community to act as mentors
  • Use video tutorials to learn about common faults and how to fix them
  • Value upcycling as much as repair — both lead to more sustainable uses of digital devices
  • Look for opportunities to solve problems in groups and promote teamwork

Discover more in Hello World

This article is from our free computing education magazine Hello World. Every issue is written by educators for educators and packed with resources, ideas, and insights to inspire your learners and your own classroom practice.

Cover of issue 19 of Hello World magazine.

For more about computing education in the context of sustainability, climate change, and environmental impact, download issue 19 of Hello World, which focuses on these topics.

You can subscribe to Hello World for free to never miss a digital issue, and if you’re an educator in the UK, a print subscription will get you free print copies in the post.

PS If you’re interested in facilitating productive classroom discussions with your learners about ethical, legal, cultural, and environmental concerns surrounding computer science, take a look at our free online course ‘Impacts of Technology: How To Lead Classroom Discussions’.

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