Posted on August 10, 2016 by staff

BBC initiative is a micro solution to a massive problem


One million UK businesses do not have the skills to be successful in today’s digital world.

The oft-cited technology skills gap is partly the result of inadequate tech education in schools.

That is why so much is expected of the BBC project micro:bit.

Animations and an interactive dice have been the first projects at one York school, while over in Lancashire pupils have been creating compasses to link in with geography work.

The smaller-than-a-credit-card device that has been rolled out to year seven pupils across the country. It is a pioneering project that has seen the BBC team up with 29 industry partners in an attempt to get more kids coding.

One million children will receive their own device this year, with many schools already getting to grips with the new addition to the curriculum as computing education gets an overhaul.

Long-term it is hoped the initiative will inspire a new generation of coders, filling anticipated skills gaps, and the accessibility of the micro:bit could mean this is entirely achievable.

Many current developers in the UK had to teach themselves how to code.

At Pocklington School, in York, 80 children were given their micro:bits shortly after the Easter holidays and, within two half-hour lessons, pupils were programming the 25 LEDs to flash up their names and playing a game where the micro:bit became a dice.

Manique Wilson, who teaches computing, English and games at the school, expects future projects to be shaped by the children the more familiar they become with the technology.

Timetabled lessons will cover techniques, while extra-curricular clubs will offer more versatility.

“A lot of the teaching for computing has to be what the children are interested in because if you can programme you can do anything,” says Wilson, who attended a crash course at York University in preparation for the devices’ arrival.

“That opens up a lot of doors for children who might have thought computing was about sending an email or creating a spreadsheet. We write code to solve a problem and using the micro:bit we can teach these computational thinking skills so that we push through the creative side of computing.

“We’re skilling the younger generation so that Britain can become pioneers in this field because STEM subjects are going to be the front runners in how we push the next workforce through.”

Clubs at the school are using software to create 3D graphics and Wilson says this engages those youngsters who enjoy gaming and gives them fresh enthusiasm for their school work.

The accessibility of the micro:bit and its ability to impact on a range of subjects are two of its advantages according to Martin Cottrell, computer science teacher and CAS master teacher at Bradford Grammar School.

Lunchtime clubs have seen pupils create anything from pencil case alarms to battleships games, and in design and technology classes children created a device to measure the force a football was kicked.

“Computing education is all about creating technology now as opposed to using it and there are endless possibilities with the micro:bit – it’s a very ‘for-the-now’ device,” he says, adding that the school already runs clubs in Minecraft programming and the Raspberry Pi.

“You can programme on the smartphone app and send it to the micro:bit via Bluetooth, which makes it easier to use than the Raspberry Pi, which requires you to connect it to a screen, a keyboard and a mouse as well as using a different operating system.”

The school is taking part in a national model rocket car competition launched by Bloodhound, where teams will build a model fitted with micro:bits that will measure acceleration and velocity.

“That will cover physics, maths and design technology so there is a real buzz around school among the children and the teachers,” says Cottrell, who runs weekend coding schools for children with Bradford-based EXA Networks.

“The micro:bit can be programmed to act as a compass and that’s really engaged the geography department, and across the school we have teachers looking at how they can work the micro:bit into their curriculum.”

Delays in delivering the micro:bit have led to fears from some that they may not have the full impact once promised, particularly as schools have only had one term to use them. They were due to be launched in October 2015 but arrived shortly after Easter 2016.

Simon Duffy, head of computing at boys’ school Manchester Grammar School, praised the initiative.

“As an insight into programming and portable computing they are absolutely fantastic and I’ve already asked my school that if they become commercialised then we will buy class sets of them so that we can integrate them into the curriculum,” he says.

“With the BBC’s online block tutorials the kids can work at their own pace and that’s really good from an educational perspective. It means they can continue in their free time, and I know at lunchtimes my computer room will be full of boys using the micro:bit, which is what it’s all about.”

Dave Jousiffe is a design and technology teacher at Haslingden High School in Rossendale, Lancashire, which received 300 micro:bits to cover its 240-strong year seven group.

Future projects will include creating a buggy with sensors that cause it to change direction when it bumps into an obstacle.

“They show the children that the things they do on a computer have a real physical capability and they’re a really goodresource,” he says.

“I think they’ve had a surprisingly small amount of publicity and there are lots of teachers I’ve spoken to from other schools who haven’t heard about them, who have then gone on to order them when they’ve found out what we’re doing.

“This will make students realise that programming isn’t just based on computers but in all the objects around them that help them in their daily lives – and it can be hard to teach that without actually showing them.”