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Tech & Science

You can now buy the BBC’s palm-sized computer to get kids coding

The micro:bit was originally part of the BBC’s Make It Digital campaign last year that was intended to educate people on IT skills. After being delayed several times, the palm-sized computer finally made its way into schools earlier this year.
Every year 7 (age 11-12) student in the UK has received a micro:bit for free. The computer comes in a variety of colours and styles and features a 5×5 LED matrix grid for output, two buttons for input and a selection of sensors including Bluetooth, an accelerometer and a speaker.
The micro:bit is programmed using a selection of online tools created by the BBC in partnership with companies including Microsoft and Qualcomm. As a student progresses in their learning, they can move from simple drag-and-drop interfaces to actually typing code.
Once the code has been created online, it is compiled into a file downloaded to the user’s computer. The micro:bit is then connected over USB, where it appears as a mass storage device like a USB pen. To make the computer run their program, the student copies the downloaded file onto the micro:bit. It will now that run that code every time it starts up, until it is reflashed.
With the initial shipments to schools now complete, manufacturer element14 has opened sales to the public. The computer costs £12.99 to buy online. Alternatively, a £14.99 starter pack is available that comes with a battery pack, USB cable and a selection of project ideas.
For coding groups and clubs, a £140 kit is also offered. It includes 10 micro:bits and enough battery packs and cables to power all the devices simultaneously. It is aimed at schools and programming gatherings that want to buy multiple computers cheaply.
The micro:bit was inspired by the BBC Micro, the computer developed by the BBC in the 1980s and heavily promoted in British schools. Since then, coding has dropped out of education though, creating a strange effect where students worldwide use digital devices for hours every day without knowing how or why they work.
In the past few years, the spirit of the BBC Micro has begun to be revived, helped by microcomputers like the Raspberry Pi. The Pi has quickly risen to prominence in schools, helped by its full Linux operating system and wide-reaching community support. A Pi can be programmed to do almost anything you want and can interface with a range of hardware from simple LEDs to sophisticated robotics.
The micro:bit undercuts the Pi on price but could prove more complicated for teachers to use. It’s also less versatile than the Pi, capable of running only limited scripts. Although a version of the Python programming language is available, this isn’t especially user friendly. The emphasis is on the somewhat clunky web interface, requiring students continually drag-and-drop files to the micro:bit to update their code.
Regardless, the micro:bit is a big step forward in the teaching of computing in UK schools, giving all students exposure to a device that invites them to hack it, break it and then fix it again. With the computer now available to programmers worldwide, the micro:bit could soon obtain a following like that of the Raspberry Pi, potentially led by students who have picked up the skills required in schools.
The micro:bit is available from online stores including Microsoft, Technology Will Save Us, Sciencescope and The Pi Hut. Worldwide shipping options will vary by store.

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