In the Early 1980s, the BBC launched a project to teach computer literacy to a generation of British schoolchildren. This project resulted in the BBC Micro, a very capable home computer that showed a generation exactly what a computer could do. These children then went home, turned on their ZX Spectrums, and became a generation of software engineers. Still, the BBC Micro is remembered fondly.
The computer revolution is long over, but today we suffer a sea change of embedded processors and microcontrollers. With Arduinos and Raspberry Pis, the BBC has decided it’s time to put the power of an ARM microcontroller into the hands of a million 11- and 12-year olds. The result is the Micro:bit. It’s a small microcontroller board with an ARM processor, an IMU, buttons, Bluetooth and a 5×5 LED array – exactly what you need if you’re teaching a million kids how to blink an LED.
Although the BBC has finalized the design for the Micro:bit, there are no specs at all. However, a few educated guesses can be made. The USB controller is provided by Freescale, who also provide the digital compass and magnetometer. Programming is done through a web-based, Arduino-like IDE with what appears to be a decent Micro:bit specific library. The board is also mbed compatible. Bluetooth, and apparently the ARM Cortex M0 core, is provided by a Nordic nRF51822. There are only three alligator clip-compatible I/Os, and its doubtful any student will be building anything that would be too complex for an entry level ARM. It’s also 3V logic; finally, the tyranny of 5V has fallen.
The Micro:bit is best seen as a tool that enables the relatively recent addition of a computer science curriculum in UK schools. There is now a requirement for seven-year-olds to understand algorithms and create simple programs. Previously computer education in the UK has consisted of PowerPoint. Now, secondary school students will be learning Boolean logic.
While the Micro:bit is utterly useless as a tool for doing real work, education is not real work. For blinking a few LEDs, having a device react to movement, playing with Bluetooth, and other lesser evils of electronics, the Micro:bit is great. Not everyone will become the digital technologists this initiative is trying to create, but for those who have an inclination towards semicolons and electrons, this is a great introduction to technology.