The BBC Micro:bit

Those of you who are old enough might remember that in the 1980’s the BBC Micro Computer running Logo was considered cutting edge in terms of IT in schools. Many children who grew up with the micro went on to forge successful careers in the IT industry.

More than 30 years on, the BBC has lifted the lid on the BBC Micro:bit, a new pocket-sized code-able computer with motion detection, a built-in compass and Bluetooth technology. It was given free to every child in year 7 across the UK in 2016 and aims to inspire the next generation of engineers and coders. It is also for sale very cheaply (£13 on Amazon) and I recently invested in some for our school.

The goal of the micro:bit project is not to introduce just another single board computer or micro-controller, rather the goal is to put a device into the hands of children and teachers that has zero cost but maximum impact. The micro:bit is designed to work with mobile devices to spur classroom creativity, and with the micro:bit anyone can make their own smart device with very little code. It measures 4cm by 5cm, is available in a range of colours, and designed to be fun and easy to use. It can be coded with something simple in seconds – like lighting up its LEDs or displaying a pattern – with no prior knowledge of computing. It also connects to other devices, sensors, kits and objects, and is a companion to Arduino, Galileo, Kano, littleBits and Raspberry Pi, acting as a spring board to more complex learning.

The BBC’s micro:bit has simple contacts, built-in buttons, sensors and a set of LEDs that act as a display once powered up. The large connectors on the board are known as PINS. They supply a large contact surface so crocodile clips can be easily attached for external electronics, which is ideal for a classroom environment and quick prototyping. The PINS include three inputs, a 3V and GND, and between each are further contacts for more advanced projects.

Once connected via USB to your computer, the board appears as a drive. Coding is handled through the microbit.co.uk website app, and this site can be used on and offline. At present the site offers several coding environments which are very much dependent on skill and include: Block Editor, JavaScript, Touch Develop and MicroPython.

The Block Editor (very similar to Scratch) is designed for those new to programmable computers. Simple code blocks can be dragged and dropped from the selection of categories on the left and are clearly labelled and ready to go. A personal area on the website allows users to save and test creations in a simulator before they are transferred to the micro:bit. Even those new to code can create a program in just a few minutes that will interact with the board and illuminate LEDs. At present one of the only issues with the Block Editor is the inability to undo, which can be frustrating if you accidentally delete a block section. Completed programs can at any point be previewed before being compiled and downloaded. The downloaded file then needs to be manually copied from your computer to the micro:bit, as at present there is no automatic uploader.

The micro:bit ships with a selection of crocodile clips which can be quickly clipped onto contacts and your choice of output. The control of any device attached can be interacted with through the code, and for simple inputs such as a switch or sensor there are plenty of drag-and-drop coding options available in the Block Editor.

There are several add on kits that work well with the micro:bit. For a flavour of what’s available check out https://shop.pimoroni.com/collections/micro-bit-uk

For its size, the micro:bit is an incredible educational tool that will let teachers, parents and students have fun with code to create games, wearable tech and other devices as yet to be imagined. Its small size and built-in sensors make it quick to code and entertaining to use.

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