Monday, 6 June 2016

BBC micro:bit for Everyone

The BBC micro:bit is a small programmable electronics board with a LED matrix, built-in sensors and input and output pins. In the UK children in Year 7 (the first year at secondary school) are all being given a micro:bit to keep. But what about everyone else? Well the micro:bit is becoming commercially available so others can get hold of them too.

I've had lots of opportunity to try out the micro:bit and it's a great bit of hardware. The programming environments are still developing and I think there's lots of capability that's only just starting to be tapped.

Getting Started with the micro:bit - Hardware

Tech Will Save Us are one of our favourite kid-tech companies and they were involved in the design of the micro:bit. They are now selling the micro:bit in kits along with accessories that will allow you to get the most from it. The micro:bit is available for pre-order for delivery in July. Tech Will Save Us are based in the UK but ship world wide.

The basic micro:bit kit includes a USB cable for programming from a laptop and a battery holder. Note that you can also program the micro:bit from a tablet via Bluetooth (USB is faster though.) The micro:bit can be powered from USB so you only need the battery holder for untethered use once it's programmed.

Tech Will Save us have also put together a micro:bit Bundle which includes a micro:bit along with components and materials that can be used to make cool projects.

If your child was one of the lucky year 7s who got a free micro:bit then the you can get the micro:bit Project Pack which doesn't include a micro:bit.

The kit includes:
  • 6 × crocodile clips (these can clip on to the input/output connections on the micro-bit)
  • 10 × jumper wires
  • 1 × buzzer (you can control the tone generated by the buzzer by programming the micro:bit)
  • 2 × packs of Sugru (awesome colourful solid glue stuff, it's an insulator and good for keeping stuff where you want it and decorating things.)
  • 1 × roll of copper tape (conductive and great for paper and card craft)

Tech Will Save us also have some micro:bit project ideas for you to try out.

In my experience of using the micro:bit with kids in workshops and coding clubs, it's adding other electronics to a micro:bit that really gets kids excited about what it can do.


Other micro:bit accessories (unofficial) including cases a very handy motor driver board are also available.

Protyping system

Once kids have mastered the basics with the input and outputs via crocodile clips then can go further and access more pins. For this you need an Edge Connector Breakout Board which the micro:bit slots in to. 

Kitronik, another of the micro:bit partners, have put together a micro:bit prototyping system which bundles the Edge Connector Breakout Board with a mounting plate, breadboard and other accessories to give a convenient setup for working with electronics components. 

One of the year 7s at our Coder Dojo has been bringing one of these along and it's a great way to take the next step with the micro:bit.

Sets of micro:bits

If you want to buy a set of micro:bits for a club or to give to kids you know then you can buy a set of 10 micro:bits from Kitronik at a slightly lower unit cost.

Getting Started with the micro:bit - Software

Code can be created in a variety of browser-based graphical and text-based editors on the BBC micro:bit site where you can also find lots of projects to try out.

Microsoft have just made a separate version of the block editor available as the Programming Experience Toolkit and from a quick first trial it looks like an improvement over the other editors. You can switch to JavaScript too. One of the key improvements is that it's simpler to get the compiled hex file on the micro:bit - for me, this has been the main pain point with using the micro:bit with children.

There's also a micro:bit app for Android and one for iOS. On phones you can access APIs for taking photos and generating ring tones. This opens up another set of scenarios for the micro:bit.

Another option to check out is using Sniff with the micro:bit. Sniff is a text-based language that has concepts based on Scratch so it will feel familiar to kids experienced with Scratch.

Support for the current Scratch 2.0 isn't available yet. But if you've got a Raspberry Pi then you can use Scratch 1.4 to communicate with the micro:bit as shown in this Scratch Pi Games Controller project.

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