BBC Microbit

Peter HudsonElectronics, Hardware, Microcontroller, Programming

The BBC Microbit was given away to all year 7 students in the UK last year and has been well supported through the year. Unfortunately, the free giveaway ended after the first year and now it is up to schools to decide whether they want to invest further and buy more or move on to other technology instead.

A programmable circuit board, the Microbit is a micro controller that can be programmed using a block code editor or more importantly Python (tapping in to the current wave of popularity that the language is enjoying in secondary schools across the UK).

We thought that the Microbit was a great little piece of kit. Over the course of the last year there have been extensive resources added to the BBC website and many others, including how to use the Microbit for more advanced electronic projects (in the same way as the Arduino micro controller can be used) for example in wearable tech and for programmable control over buggies and robotics kits. It offers a really good introduction to coding and the students got a fantastic buzz out of seeing their initial creations light up the onboard led matrix for the very first time.

The Microbit is endlessly extendable and there are some really great projects out there for your students to get involved in. It features bluetooth, an accelerometer as well as a built in compass alongside several other excellent features. It also possesses easy to access pins for connecting other devices (3 General Purpose Input Output connectors which can easily be connected with crocodile clips, as well as a more extensive 20 pin edge connector which can be used to connecting to break out boards for example). For more detail on the connections visit https://www.microbit.co.uk/device/pins.

It is worth mentioning that there are other options available that perform a similar set of tools and features, for example the Codebug. Codebugs cost £15 each or a full class set of 30 for £310, representing very good value, although with much fewer option in terms of connectivity to other devices/circuit boards because of a limited amount of pin connections. If students are interested in programming then the Microbit and Codebug offer a good introduction to the Raspberry Pi (a micro computer), which although more expensive actually offers a more rich feature set. There are also a lot of options in terms of the Arduino which has been around for significantly longer. If you are looking to offer your students a path to electronics in addition to programming the Arduino is a very good choice.

However we do love the Microbit, and if you have a couple left lying around in school after the big BBC giveaway, with a small investment you may be able to create a reusable class set to keep you going for a few years to come.

The biggest disappointment for us was that all of the hype felt a little bit like marketing. Schools invested time (which if you work in a school will know is as good as money!) in developing schemes of work to fit around the Microbit as well as creating resources in addition to working out how they work and can best be used. However possession of the Microbits was passed to the year 7 pupils. An excellent idea – but what about this years year 7, and the next? What to do with all the resources and time spent preparing…If this sounds a little bit like you the question becomes – do you want to spend money now so that you can use all those resources that you worked tirelessly on..(but in the process feel like a victim of a huge marketing drive ?) or do you want to cut your losses now and spend your small budget on something else?

In the end we invested and bought a class set. It is a brilliant little device and the students love using it. We can run projects for them such as designing and creating their own wearable tech, and if they want to take their program and kit home, it is relatively inexpensive for them to buy one of their own. A class set now serves us very well and also makes for a very interesting computer club (the line following buggy is brilliant). At the end of the day, it is a great piece of kit, but I can’t help feeling that I am a small victim to a really big marketing ruse…

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Summary
Offers a great introduction to programming and electronics to young students at a very affordable price. A very good microcontroller with more than enough features to compete with alternative offerings as well as the backing of the BBC. The wide range of resources and engaging activities available online make this a winning choice for teachers.
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