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Happy’s Tech Talk
By Happy Holden
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Happy’s Tech Talk #20: Teaching Coding to Kids—The UK’s Micro:bit Tool
I recently learned about the micro:bit programming tool, and an important initiative in the UK to teach coding to young students. It made such an impression on me that I purchased the training set, went through the tutorial and plan to send it to my 10-year-old grandson. He told me he’s already eager to start.
First, I showed it to my son and asked him to start learning to use it so he can help his son if he has any questions. It’s about $18 to get the complete system, so it’s not too expensive and I hope to see it spread more widely in the United States.
The micro:bit tool is exceptionally well-designed to appeal to students and allow them to create items they want without the need to purchase any other items. With Bluetooth and wireless radio built in, it offers network-building from a battery-powered device that could also be a piece of jewelry. But how did this get started?
A New Initiative
In 2015, the BBC launched the Make It Digital initiative1, aiming to inspire a new era of creativity using programming and digital technology. Simultaneously, the initiative would support the UK’s mandate to teach computer science concepts at all grade levels. The BBC micro:bit evolved from that initiative. It is a small programmable and embeddable computer that is designed, developed, and deployed by the BBC and 29 project partners. It will go to approximately 700,000 primary school students this year. This invention refers back to the BBC Micro Computer2. The BBC described micro:bit as its “most ambitious education initiative in 30 years, with an ambition to inspire digital creativity and develop a new generation of tech pioneers”.3
Continuing a constructionist approach to computing education with simple hands-on tools, the BBC micro:bit has moved from a local educational experiment in the UK to a global effort driven by the Micro:bit Educational Foundation (MEF), a nonprofit organization established in September 2016. To date, there are over 39 million micro:bits in over 60 countries with many hardware, content, and education partners participation. MEF’s goal is, “Education with the micro:bit is about kids inventing things and expressing themselves, with technology as a tool,” and “Inspiring every child to create their best digital future.”
This is not my first column about technology toys for kids. In August 2006, I wrote a column for CircuiTree Magazine titled, “If You Want Smarter Kids, Buy Them Smarter Toys.”4 Figure 1 shows the four robotic constructions you could buy to construct a robotic vehicle in addition to the LEGO MINDSTORMS. The Australian “VIPER” was extremely interesting as all the various robotic parts were plated-through PCBs with edge through-holes turned into castellations that permitted them to be electrically connected as well as mechanical.
A Strong Micro:bit History
The BBC has focused on early programming literacy since 1978. Continuous research led the UK to embrace computer coding as early as grade seven. Thus, the BBC helped form the MEF with other interested technologists and educators. They determined that just robotic programs and Maker electronics like the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi occurred too late in a student’s learning and excluded too many students who weren’t ready for hands-on construction projects.
The MEF mission is to enable and inspire all children to participate in the digital world, with particular focus on girls and those from disadvantaged group, make the micro:bit an easy and effective learning tools, collaborate with educators to create exceptional curriculum, and build and support communities of educators and partners to remove barriers to learning digital skills.
The micro:bit is only 51.6 x 42.0 mm (2.0"x1.7") and powered by two AA batteries. It uses two current ARM 32-bit Cortex microcontroller with FPU and memory and Bluetooth wireless radio (Figure 2).
The hardware functional diagram is seen in Figure 3.
For a middle school student (Grade 7), learning to code may be a challenge. Fortunately, the BBC and the MEF spent years experimenting and researching the best way to engage young students. With the help of Microsoft, they created the programming learning tool—MakeCode (Figure 4).
Software and coding is where the micro:bit really shines. Four coding languages are provided with debugging, editors, and simulation tools:
- Microsoft’s graphics language, MakeCode (Blocks), for beginners
- MIT’s Scratch
- MicroPython for high schoolers
These additional software editors/tools are provided:
- Mu: A Python editor
- EduBlocks: A block editor for MicroPython
Other programming languages that are supported for continued use into college and industry including Free Pascal, Simulink in MATLAB, C++, Forth, Lisp, Rust, Ada, Swift, BASIC, and Zephyr.
The technical paper, “The BBC micro:bit—from the UK to the world”2, discussed some of the seven examples of student projects grouped into four broad classification of use:
- Wearables and interactive play
- Digital crafting
- Science and measurements
- Interconnected devices
Unlike other hardware projects, the open nature of the micro:bit includes source code, the PCB design files (Altium and EAGLE Gerber files) suggestions for future revisions and all the drawings and mechanics. The MEF truly wants your help in making this a better, less costly, and more inspiring tool for engaging students.
To Learn More
The BBC micro:bit hardware and software assets are open source. Learn more here:
- The BBC Make It Digital Initiative.
- “The BBC micro:bit—From the UK to the World,” by Jonny Austin, Howard Baker Thomas Ball, et al, 2018.
- “The Legacy of the BBC Micro Effecting Change in the UK’s Cultures of Computing,” by Tilly Blyth, May 2012.
- “If You Want Smarter Kids, Buy Them Smarter Toys,” by Happy Holden, CircuiTree Magazine, August 2006.
- Micro:bit Technical information available at tech.microbit.org.
Happy Holden has worked in printed circuit technology since 1970 with Hewlett-Packard,?NanYa?Westwood, Merix, Foxconn, and Gentex. He is currently a contributing technical editor with I-Connect007, and the author?of?Automation and Advanced Procedures in PCB Fabrication, and?24 Essential Skills for Engineers.?To read past columns or contact Holden, click here.
This column originally appeared in June 2023 issue of PCB007 Magazine.
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Happy’s Tech Talk #22: Computer-aided Bare Board Testing, Revisited
Happy's Tech Talk #21: Embedded (Flush) Circuits
Happy’s Tech Talk #19: Next-generation Electroplating Systems
Happy’s Tech Talk #18: Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat
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