The BBC micro:bit may not look like much of a computer, but it’s a small programmable device with 25 LED lights on the front, several buttons that you can press to interact with the machine in different ways, and sensors including an accelerometer and compass. The system also supports Bluetooth Low Energy connections.
The idea is to give kids a device and the tools to program it, and see what they come up with.
Students aged around 11 or 12 are getting the devices, and some early projects have included creation of a thermometer that measures temperature changes as a balloon flies into the stratosphere, measure the speed of rocket-propelled model cars, or measure the height of items thrown while juggling.
There are other small, inexpensive single-board computers that can act as full-fledged desktop PCs. Plug a keyboard, mouse, and monitor into a Raspberry Pi, and you’ve basically got a desktop computer. You can’t do that with a micro:bit.
But the BBC’s tiny computer is designed to be an easy-to-use device that you can program from another computer and learn about coding. It’s more like an Arduino board than a Raspberry Pi in that way… but while Arduino devices are cheap, the micro:bit is free (for students, anyway) and aimed specifically at the education market… but one of the interesting things about this project is that the BBC isn’t giving the devices to schools… it’s giving them to students.
Kids get to keep their micro:bit computers, which mean that they could keep tinkering even when the lesson plans are done, and maybe feel a little more ownership of their creations.
The original BBC Micro line of computers were PCs sold to schools and home users in the 1980s, at a time when not a lot of people had computers in their households. These days, plenty of people have computers, but not a lot know how to create their own code. The BBC micro:bit is one approach toward changing that.