Author(s): Peter Bryer
Many schools around the world provide their students with laptops or tablets. Getting online is considered a necessity in most regions, enabling kids to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Students learn how to use software, but they're less likely to know how to create it. In the UK, this is changing.
Later in 2015, the BBC and several private partners including ARM, Freescale, Microsoft, Nordic Semiconductor and Samsung will give out about 1 million tiny, programmable chip PCs to 11- and 12-year-old students in the UK. The small device and its software development kit will enable them to write small, practical applications.
The initiative hopes to encourage children to develop apps. Introducing kids to coding at an early age should lay the groundwork for writing in advanced programming languages. Modern-day literacy now includes the ability to understand at least the basics of coding.
The micro:bit device runs on an ARM Cortex-M0 processor and includes an accelerometer, a magnetometer, Bluetooth LE, USB and a five-by-five LED matrix display. It can be powered via USB or an external battery pack. Micro:bit isn't intended to be a complete PC running a full operating system, so isn't a competitor to Raspberry Pi.
Applications are created using the TouchDevelop scripting environment — a visual programming language developed by Microsoft. TouchDevelop runs within browsers, allowing most current PCs and smart devices to be used to program micro:bit. Apps can be tested and debugged in the browser before being embedded onto the micro:bit using Bluetooth or USB.
Making programmable chip PCs standard kit for children across the UK should create at least a basic interest in and understanding of computer science. Micro:bit's inclusion of an accelerometer and magnetometer encourages the use of sensors in applications — apps for a basic burglar alarm that detects movement and a wearable that detects pace are among examples of possible projects. The device's hardware should go some way in keeping the UK competitive in a mobile-centric world.
Micro:bit was created through a collaboration between public and private sectors, and reflects a real need for a computer-literate workforce of talented developers. The partners are likely to interest more students in studying computer science later on by supporting creativity at young ages. About 1 million children will soon receive a micro:bit. There's a lot of potential in these numbers.