Tuesday, 15 August 2017

10 reasons why the micro:bit is fantastic for beginners

The micro:bit is a small computer that is fantastic for introducing beginners to coding, electronics and digital making. All that STEAM stuff that we love here on Tech Age Kids.

We've chosen the micro:bit as the platform for our new book micro:bit in Wonderland. The book contains 12 projects, inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, that mix craft, coding and electronics as well as introducing opportunities for using a craft cutter, laser cutter and 3D printer for those who have access.

  1. The micro:bit is affordable. It retails for around £12.99 or a few pounds more in a kit with a USB cable and battery pack. This means that it's affordable to more families and that it's less of a financial risk to give it a go. It also means that if you make something really, really cool that you want to keep then you can get another one. 
  2. The 25 pixel LED screen is somewhat controversial. You'd be forgiven for thinking that there's not much you can do with 25 pixels. But I love it for getting beginners away from a focus on graphics. I find that kids expectations for how things should look are generally behind their ability to produce graphical assets (yes that's another problem to solve!) On the micro:bit those expectations are removed and kids are happy to create the best alien they can come up with in a 5 x 5 grid with only one colour. The ability to display text is really useful - it's an effective way to convey information.
  3. The micro:bit is packed with inputs and sensors which means that you can do loads of things without needing to add additional electronics. Connecting things up to a micro processor can be a stumbling block for beginners as they struggle to know which components to buy and understand wiring diagrams. With the micro:bit you can do a lot of stuff without needing to add extra components. 
  4. The MakeCode graphical editor is excellent, free and runs in a web browser. The earlier editors for the micro:bit weren't so good (my Code Club refused to use one of them, they thought it was so bad!) The new editor makes the micro:bit really accessible to beginners. We love the way that it shows you how to connect up any components you reference in your code.
  5. You can connect up electronics using crocodile clips. OK, kids find them a bit fiddly, but they're so much easier than trying to understand a tangle of jumper leads in bread board and struggling to identify which pin is which (with potentially serious consequences if you get it wrong.) And while soldering is a useful skill, lots of kids are ready for coding and electronics before they're safe to use a soldering iron. 
  6. You can connect your headphones or a buzzer or speaker. In some ways, it would be nice to have a built in speaker. But that's offset by the awesome ability to connect up a regular set of headphones. This really demystifies a piece of everyday tech and gets kids looking at the headphone jack that they probably use regularly.  
  7. The micro:bit has been designed to support digital making so it's suitable for use in craft and e-textiles projects. This encourages creative uses of the micro:bit by people who are just interested in tech for its own sake.
  8. The micro:bit is physically small which makes it great for wearable projects and for mixing with LEGO, craft and 3D printing. It also means that you can easily take it with you when you go out, just in case. 
  9. The micro:bit has a low floor and high ceiling. While it's fantastic for beginners there's a path to move forward and code in JavaScript or Python and then C/C++.  You can attach more complex electronics and make use of the Bluetooth and radio features. It's easier to develop more advanced skills with a device you're familiar with. 

There are a few things we're less keen on and should point out, but they're not show stoppers:
  1. Transferring files to the micro:bit sometimes feels like that hardest part of the process with kids! I use the Google Chrome browser with the micro:bit uploader running in the background to transfer files. This means that you just need to click Download. Streamlining this process is important as you want to encourage kids to try their code on the real micro:bit rather than having barriers in the way. But kids have to remember to run the uploader once per session. 
  2. The micro:bit safety instructions say that you shouldn't use reusable batteries. This is a shame as lots of us try to be environmentally responsible and like to avoid non-reusable batteries. 
  3. The JST battery connector on the micro:bit is really fiddly, it's hard for kids to remove and they may be tempted to pull the cables. The battery boxes included in the switch also don't have an on/off switch so you need to unplug the micro:bit when you're not using it. 

Ready to get started with the micro:bit? Try our micro:bit in Wonderland bonus projects and sign-up to find out when the book becomes available. 

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