BBC to give away 1 million ‘Micro Bit’ PCs to help kids learn code

The BBC's Micro Bit will introduce students to coding, after which they may graduate to devices such as the Raspberry Pi.

The Micro Bit computer, a prototype of which is shown here, will have a 5x5 LED display, a USB port, and a small processor.

Britain’s public school curriculum introduced coding classes last year, after advocates pointed out that learning to code can help kids think logically and prepare them for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Middle-schoolers learn two programming languages, and also take general tech classes on topics such as staying safe online. Now, those coding classes will be a bit more hands-on, because one million students starting middle school in the fall will be given a “Micro Bit” computer that’s designed to help them learn the basics of creating programs.

The Micro Bit is similar to the popular Raspberry Pi mini-computer: it has a small processor, a graphics processing unit, a few megabytes of RAM – and not much else. The Micro Bit has a single USB port, so it can be connected to another device, and a 5x5 LED display that scrolls text or signals the computer’s status. It’s a stripped-down gadget designed to make it easy for kids to start writing their own code, at which point they may move on to the Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or another more complex device.

The BBC partnered with more than 25 technology companies, including Microsoft, Samsung, and chipmaker ARM, to create the Micro Bit. It even got advice from the Raspberry Pi Foundation on how to make the machine attractive to would-be coders. The Micro Bit doesn’t run a full operating system, but it allows students to write code in a text editor or graphical interface, compile it, and then run it on the device. It’s designed to be small and light enough that it can be fastened to students’ clothing as a makeshift wearable device.

The BBC is giving the computers away as part of its “Make It Digital” campaign, which aims to get students interested in programming, design, and digital technology. The broadcaster predicts that there will be a large market for these skills in the coming decades.

This isn’t the BBC’s first foray into personal computing. In 1980, the corporation commissioned the BBC Micro, a small (for the time) home computer that was supposed to help Brits learn technology literacy skills. About 80 percent of British schools had a Micro and the machine was moderately popular for home use, but it was too expensive to have a widespread educational impact.

This time around, the BBC has made a microcomputer that’s small, light, cheap to produce, and compatible with coding languages Python, C++, and Touch Develop. It’s worth noting that there will only be one round of production for the Micro Bit. Once all 1 million devices have been distributed to middle-schoolers, the BBC will withdraw from the market. What about younger kids who want to learn to code? Perhaps a private company will create a new device for them.

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