December 13, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

For Budding Coders, the Micro:bit Promises to Grow with a Learner’s Skill Level | Tech Review

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Say “hello, world!” to the micro:bit, a codable computer you can put in your pocket. The micro:bit was originally developed by the BBC as an educational initiative in the UK, and it’s finally made its way across the pond. Along with 29 partner companies, and in an effort to address a looming technology skills shortage, BBC created the micro:bit, and in 2016, distributed the device for free to year seven (sixth grade) students across the UK. Because the micro:bit was designed to teach and inspire kids to learn coding skills, it’s versatile and easy to use out of the box. Packed with programmable sensors, buttons, and flashing LED lights, the micro:bit is here to make coding tangible and attainable.

The micro:bit is a small board (just over 1.5″ by 2″) packed with a 5×5 red LED array, two buttons, and five digital/analog input/output rings (or pins). It comes with a BLE smart antenna, a compass, and an accelerometer. The board can be purchased on its own ($14.95) or as a Go Bundle ($16.50), which includes a battery pack (plus two AAA batteries) and USB connector.

The micro:bit is programmed using one of the two web-based code editors available at microbit.org/code. The JavaScript Blocks editor, powered by MakeCode, allows for programs written in either Blocks or JavaScript. The Python editor is for more experienced coders. Python programs can be written directly in the Python editor or written in another editor and uploaded as a hex file.

How it works

The micro:bit is first and foremost a complex sensor, able to process a wide variety of inputs. The A and B buttons can be programmed to respond to being pressed individually or simultaneously. The built-in compass and accelerometer enable the micro:bit with a range of motion-sensing capabilities. It can be programmed to react to the direction it’s facing and to being tilted, turned upside-down, and shaken. The BLE smart antenna gives it wireless radio capabilities, allowing the micro:bit to send messages to other micro:bits and to write and send, or “flash,” code from Android and iOS devices. The radio capabilities also allow the micro:bit to send commands, such as “take a picture” or “vibrate,” via Bluetooth to wireless Android devices (currently, micro:bit cannot send commands to iOS devices). Other inputs can be created by wiring objects to the connector rings and programming the rings to either sense or send a signal.

The micro:bit has far fewer built-in outputs than inputs. The LED array, its main output, can flash pictures and icons, scroll text, and work as a counter. It’s preset with 40 simple icons—including one delightfully accurate Pac-Man ghost—but can be programmed with new images and icons, including larger images that scroll and animations composed of multiple images. The array can also be programmed to respond to the position of the micro:bit. One included game involves tilting the board in all directions to “catch” the light. A music and sound module is also incorporated but will remain silent until you attach a speaker using the pins. It can play 20 preloaded tunes, but a persistent programmer who can read music will be able to make it play just about anything.

It’s the pins at the base of the micro:bit that break the output possibilities wide open. The five pins, one of which is designated as the grounding element, can be programmed as both inputs and outputs. As an output, the pins can power a servo or DC motor, or really any mechanical device that can be wired into a circuit. Making use of these pins transforms the micro:bit from a programmable self-contained computer into a clever and versatile maker tool. Example projects on the BBC micro:bit website (makecode.microbit.org/projects) show these pins being used to turn bananas into a keyboard that plays tones when the bananas are touched or powering the moving arms and glowing eyes of a robot made from a milk carton.

The two coding platforms are intuitive and fairly easy to use. Both have accompanying lessons that will walk new users through the language and major concepts of coding. The JavaScript Blocks lessons are based in projects that get more challenging as you work through them. The Blocks are simple enough for beginners but capable of everything JavaScript can do. Experienced coders will be able to use the advanced blocks to create games with characters, or “sprites,” write programs that utilize higher-level coding elements such as functions and variables, and stretch the micro:bit to its limits.

As Python is more challenging than the Blocks, the Python editor is accompanied by a list of tutorials, the MicroPython Guide. The guide begins with a tutorial titled “Hello, World!”, traditionally the first program one writes in a new language, and advances through the use of the micro:bit’s wireless radio functions. At the end of the sequence, even someone brand-new to Python will be able to write basic programs for the micro:bit and have a solid grasp of Python syntax—a good place to start learning the language in earnest.

As a tool for teaching coding, the micro:bit is just about perfect. JavaScript and Python—the languages it runs on—can be immediately applied to real-world projects in website and app design. Perhaps the best feature in the Blocks editor is the way the coder can easily toggle between the Blocks and the JavaScript text, bridging a gap that can be very challenging to teach. Add to that the fact that the micro:bit can be programmed from most of the devices a 1:1 school is likely to use. That said, the wireless iOS connection is problematic and could cause headaches for iPad schools.

As a maker tool, the micro:bit is a great, inexpensive alternative for a project that doesn’t quite require the computing power of an Arduino or Raspberry Pi but still needs a little code to make it work. It’s small enough to sew into a wearable project and tough enough to be reused again and again. The AAA battery pack could get tiresome, but there are other ways to power the micro:bit if necessary.

Finally, the micro:bit educator page (microbit.org/teach) offers resources for new and experienced computer science teachers. For those who want to dip into coding, a wide range of project lesson plans is available. For teachers who wish to spend more time or prefer a step-by-step plan, there are two full-length programs: a 14-week curriculum created by Microsoft and a middle school Project Lead the Way unit titled “Computer Science for Innovators and Makers.

Verdict While the micro:bit is marketed for beginners and students, the use of JavaScript and Python, along with the connector pins on the device, give it a versatility and robustness that will challenge even seasoned programmers. Already affordably priced, it also has a high capacity to grow with a student’s skill level. All in all, the small but mighty micro:bit is a nearly perfect fit.

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Addie Matteson About Addie Matteson

Addie Matteson is a middle school librarian at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA.

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