This week one million Year Seven kids across the UK (that’s all of them) were given a BBC micro:bit, a pocket-sized computer designed to encourage them to get hands-on and creative with technology. The ever brilliant London-based Technology Will Save Us led the design of the device, so we spoke to co-founder and CEO Bethany Koby to find out more…
This little device looks (and sounds) amazing, tell us more… We describe the micro:bit as a ‘tech tool’, a little device that has been designed to empower kids to make and code with technology. It’s like a swiss army knife for digital making in that it has multi potential and can be applied to any problem or project that a young person can imagine.
The project is being led by the BBC but was a collaboration between a number of partners including, amongst others, ourselves, The Wellcome Trust and Samsung. It came from the understanding that the skills of the future are going to be really different to the skills of today, and the BBC, like us, believes really strongly that these technical skills are as much about tech as they are about creativity and unleashing young people’s creative potential.
There is a massive digital skills gap in the UK because although young people today are incredibly sophisticated users of tech, they are not necessarily sophisticated makers or producers of it. This was a massive signal to the BBC that the gap is only going to get bigger unless we do something about it now.
So how does it work? The front is the project side, it has buttons on it which can be used for gaming and switching, essentially like controllers. It has an edge connector that allows you to connect it to other things, like tech things – the Raspberry Pi or other Technology Will Save Us Kits – and everyday things, such as fruit, or other conductive material. It means you can appropriate the micro:bit in lots of interesting ways.
It also has an LED display on the front for scrolling text, animations and other fun things. Then on the back is the tech side. Here there is a micro USB to connect it to a computer, tablet or phone to enable programming, and to power it. It also has a processor, a compass, a battery, an accelerometer (for tracking and moving) and bluetooth. The fact that it has bluetooth is super exciting as this means it is wireless, and it means you can use it to do Internet of Things projects with it, essentially use it to talk to the internet.
And what can kids do with it? Right out of the box they can do simple things like write their name across the screen and wear it as a badge. They can programme a game onto it, they can give it hair with play dough, they can turn it into a pocket pet. Or they can do more complex things on it and get into exploring engineering by turning it into boat navigation device.
So it is a tech device but it can also be used in the physical world? Yes, what the micro:bit promises is something that is beyond the screen. Right now kids are on screens all the time, and here are Technology Will Save Us we are really passionate about tech in the wider sense of the word, not just programming. We think that the more that kids are exposed to the physical world of tech the more opportunity they will have to find the things that they are good at, and the things they are passionate about. Not everyone needs to be a programmer or a developer, but everyone needs to know enough about programming to know how to do a little bit of it and how to engage with programming as a tool, as a medium.
Why Year Seven kids? Extensive research showed us that this is a pivotal moment in young people’s learning and education. Not only are they are moving from primary to secondary school, they are also beginning to understand computational thinking and complex algorithms. Most of them will have done a little bit of programming in school and therefore the micro:bit will be familiar enough that they will be able to start to do something with it. It can of course also be used by younger and older kids, but we wanted to start by making an impact with this age group first.
Why is it so important that kids know about coding? Well, 65% of children in primary school today will be working in jobs that don’t exist yet. As a parent myself I find that statistic both exciting and terrifying, as I’m sure teachers do too. I think the thing we can do as parents, and as educators, is empower kids to find their passions and explore the skills that will be needed in this unknown future because what we do know is that tech will be at the heart of the future, whatever vocation our kids go into – food, fashion, the arts – tech will play a role, and it will be both digital and physical. So while we may not know what the jobs of the future will be, we know that problem solving, creativity, computational thinking and confidence are all skills that our kids are going to need to be able to navigate what is going to unfold.
The launch of the Micro:Bit is part of the wider Make It Digital campaign which aims to elevate companies that are already doing great stuff in the UK by giving them a platform to go bigger than they could have gone alone. For more info and to find out what projects the kids developing and making with their micro:bits check out microbit.co.uk
To see the micro:bit in action check out youtube.com