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Age Range: 11-14
Duration: 0-29 mins
  • D&T
  • Engineering

The first programmable system

Recognising historic programmable systems

This is an engaging starter activity that has been designed to improve students’ understanding of what a programmable system is. It does this by comparing their knowledge of modern electronic systems against historic systems such as Ktesibios's water clock.

The lesson also helps students to understand the core components of a programmable system, which include inputs, processes, and outputs.

This is one of a set of resources developed to aid the class teaching of the secondary national curriculum, particularly KS3. It has been designed to support the delivery of key topics within design and technology (D&T) and engineering.

Activity: Recognising historic programmable systems

In this activity, students will view our programmable systems presentation and begin by reviewing a manufacturing robot arm to see what goes into the robot system (input), what the robot does (process), and what comes out (output).

Students will then be shown the clepsydra water clock, where they will review the input, process, and output of this early example of a programmable system.

Download our activity overview for an introductory lesson plan on programmable systems.

What is the difference between a programmable and non-programmable system?

A ‘non-programmable’ system produces a single defined output or series of outputs. Even if there is a feedback loop, it is designed to achieve that single quantitative output value. The outputs can only be changed by physically changing one of the process blocks.

A programmable system produces an output that can be modified without changing the physical components that make up the system – just by changing the instructions that operate within the process block.

The engineering context

Programmable systems, which are central to modern engineering, are by no means a recent invention. In fact, many regard the first to be Ktesibios's water clock, which was invented approximately 2250 years ago. 

Suggested learning outcomes

This activity teaches students how to recognise programmable systems. They will also be able to identify the input, process, and output of an unfamiliar programmable system.

Download our activity sheet and other teaching resources (H2)

The activity sheet includes teachers’ notes, useful web links, and links (where appropriate) to the national curriculum in each of the four devolved nations; England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

All activity sheets and supporting resources are free to download, and all the documents are fully editable, so you can tailor them to your class’s and your schools’ needs.

You can download our classroom lesson plan below.

Please do share your highlights with us @IETeducation. 


Applications of programmable systems

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