Welcome to the BBC Micro:Bit

Its 1982 and its the year of Information Technology,   the BBC Model B is the must have computer device for a generation of students getting their head around the idea of ‘programming a computer’.   As a student of the 80’s one of my favourite programmes was the BBC’s ‘The Computer Programme’ with people like Ian McNaught-Davis and Chris Searle taking people on a journey into the technology ahead.

Those students like myself had come from days of building Lego, possibly playing Pong on a Binatone games console, so the idea of the technology, and especially the idea of programming a computer was a real fascination. Computer Studies was a ‘sort after topic’ by my classmates, and lines of code were produced which gave us the idea and concepts which have stayed with me throughout my working career.

Lets fast forward  a few years –  the ethos changes from programming a computer, to using a computer. Using application like spreadsheets, desktop publishing.   The art of computer programming in the younger generation had almost been wiped out. As an education system, teachers were teaching the IT curriculum, those people with computing skills were carving a career in industry to become the developers of tomorrow.

Let move forward again, I think it was at the Bett Show when Michael Gove the then Minister for Education, declared the Computing (Science) was back on the curriculum! Hurrah a generation of computer programmers will be created to power the economy forward.   That statement sent shock waves through education as we suddenly realised that the majority of the IT teachers in schools had little or no programming skills. Mixed with this a generation of students who have been brought up on technology, these are indeed different times.

Yammer in the classroom
Its different from the first Computing generation – students have been brought up on technology, and computer programming has to be ‘a real sell’ to get students engaged on building the apps of the future.

We have seen the arrival of organisations such as CAS (Computing at Schools) who have done a superb job of upskilling hundreds of teachers with computing skills.  With teachers teaching Scratch, and more recently Python in the classroom, however I have yet to see ‘inspired’ children at the keyboard.   Indeed I get a bit worried when I still see business looking for good Microsoft Office skills in potential employees, rather than computational skills.

However this week I had my first hands on play with a device that may well be pivotal in being able to pick the programmers of the future out of the class – that is the BBC Micro:bit

I will have to admit I am a big fan of the Raspberry PI, and we have had great projects at Wymondham School using the device.   However the Micro:bit is very personal and students get very excited about the visual tangible results from such a small device in their hands. If you can excite students then that’s 80% of the job done, natural curiosity carries the rest.    Also unlike the PI the device does not worry about displays like HDMI etc – it simply plugs in to your existing PC’s through USB.

The Micro:bit is a computer developed by the BBC and in conjunction with Microsoft, and will be delivered to Year 7 students for free this academic year.  Not a typical computer with a keyboard etc, more a computing device,  it is packed to the gunnels with programmable buttons, accelerometers, motion detectors etc.  Its is programmed from any PC using the Micro:bit website, and I believe in the future will be able to be controlled from your mobile phone.

One side of the Micro:bit looks like this, with two programmable button and an programmable LED display.

The LED grid on the Micro:bit
The LED grid on the Micro:bit

At the bottom you see a number of I/O pins that can be used to get tactile input from the operator.  For example

When Pin1 is touched, light up the LED panel

OMG – was that just an algorithm ?  This device really gets you hooked just thinking about it.  On the flip side is a map of all the sensors to give the student the idea of how the device is connected and flows.

http://microbit.co.uk

The website is where the action take place.   My advice is to get yourself registered to have a look its great.  Once you have logged onto you will see the environments in which you can code effectively.  The first is Code Kingdoms JavaScipt,  then Microsoft’s Block Editor and finally Microsoft’s TouchDevelop.   However teachers with there head buried in Python will be please to know the Micro@bit will be able to be controlled using Python very soon.

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There are a different range of environments to code your Micro:bit

So we spent an hour getting the LED panel to light, sending messages etc.  In its simplest form the website shows the Micro:bit in an emulator so you can test your code before sending it on to the device.

In its simplest form I have just turned on an LED
In its simplest form I have just turned on an LED

I can now compile my code and send it to my Micro:bit if I had it connected to my device.   The Micro:bit connects through a Micro USB cable, and then appears as a drive on your machine.  Simply drag the compiled file to that drive to execute it.

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The Micro:bit working on my Surface 3 device.

This device gives students a real tangible result in their hand; the I programmed it, and it does this scenario.  Instead of children simply dragging script blocks into place on a screen. The future is built around being able to control devices, with skills  sets in using IoT device coming to fruition, the Micro:bit is a catalyst to start a generation in how to code and create programs.

It may well reignite an interest in those who wish to carve a career in Computing /IT.  I am not a believer in ‘everyone is a coder’   Though the Micro:bit with its small size and development backed by Microsoft, BBC and other organisation is a truly a device to inspire a generation of students.

A call to arms from me to you.

Make sure you don’t miss the opportunity of a Micro:bit for every Year 7 student in this years intake. If you haven’t you still have time to register here https://bbcmicrobitschoolregistrationform.co.uk/english.html

Check out the http://microbit.co.uk website, register and get coding your first program to control your device.

Then  wait for your device to be delivered in December and begin to inspire your students with some hands on physical coding.

Follow me @kevin_sait

 

 

 

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Why every school should have an Xbox

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Its amazing when you put the right tools or the correct opportunities in front of young students how creative they can be.  One of these tools that ‘inspire’ creation is Project Spark from Microsoft.  I first came across Project Spark  at the Bett Show this year when it was in Beta. Microsoft’s Stuart Ball @innovativeteach  kindly gave me a beta code to try it out.   Spark for those who don’t know is a gaming environment that covers, creation, game play, programming and most importantly student  imagination!    Project Spark is available as a Windows Store download for Windows 8.1, (however you will need a Core I5 to run it).

Project Spark like its younger sibling Kodu, puts the world of coding and computational thinking in the hands of students, by giving them the ability to see the results in a world they understand. For example the ability to make a game and play it with an Xbox controller, shows a student a real tangible result.

Project Spark starts you off in a ‘blank world’ allowing you to place your ‘hero’ on the screen and then you begin to program, which in itself is nothing new.  Project Spark simply catches the student imagination, in creating worlds, programming, inventing gameplay and producing something that can be played on a modern day console rather than just a school desktop PC.

Apart from being creative, there is an important coding aspect to Project Spark. Every item has a programmable brain.
Apart from being creative, there is an important coding aspect to Project Spark. Every item has a programmable brain.

Get started by placing your hero on a blank world and chose to use a preset ‘brain’ or code one from scratch, using simple when & do statements.

Your hero can soon interact with other props and characters in your game through simple coding.

Add further detail to your hero through the character studio to personalise your avatar.

 

As well as building awesome worlds, Project Spark caters for the coding community with easy coding commands
As well as building awesome worlds, Project Spark caters for the coding community with easy coding commands

Students can easily get to grips in controlling there hero character with simple When & Do style coding.   When I use the controller  Do something.    Remember characters can be coded but also props can be coded, so they can interact with other items.   You can also power items so for example switches can supply power to doors, or lights.

So you can code in Project Spark! The magic happens in creating a world in which to play, this is where students can build games which look like and behave like top releases.  Painting the world allows so much creativity, and the software will put the finishing touches.  For example paint a cave and over hanging foliage is automatically put in.

 

Spark student imagination b y creating awesome worlds and the kode different items.
Spark student imagination b y creating awesome worlds and the kode different items.

You see really awesome creations are in the hands of students to inspire them to code and be creative through Project Spark.

Project Spark is available on Windows 8 PC’s through the Windows Store, and also on the Xbox One. It is also set to make an appearance on the Xbox 360.

So should your school have an Xbox to inspire students to code?    Yes I think so, students who can showcase work on recognised platforms will tend to want to develop it further and also gain valuable feedback from peers.

Computer Science should inspire  students to want to code and its tools like Project Spark which will allow this to happen in the classroom.

For more information http://projectspark.com

Follow Stuart Ball @innovativeteach on Twitter