Steve Hodges, principal researcher at Microsoft Cambridge, fell in love with computing when he was first exposed to the BBC Micro at school in the 1980s. The computer was part of the BBC Computer Literacy Programme and was designed to encourage students to explore the potential of computer programming.
After using the BBC Micro at school, he begged his parents for a home computer, promising – as kids so often do – that he’d never ask them for anything again if they’d only buy him this one thing.
They eventually acquiesced, and Hodges was hooked. He went on to build a very successful career, and he’s now a principal researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge, where he leads the organisation’s sensors and devices group.
But he still has that old BBC Micro.
“I couldn’t let it go because it changed my life,” he said.
Now, Hodges and other Microsoft researchers are hoping that a similar BBC project, the BBC micro:bit – part of their Make It Digital programme – will have the same effect on the next generation of young people across the UK.
From Micro to BBC micro:bit
Later this year, the BBC together with Microsoft and a range of other partners will provide every Year 7 student (age 11-12) in the United Kingdom with their very own BBC micro:bit, a personal computing device that they can use to explore the possibilities of computer science, both in and out of the classroom.
The device has been specifically designed for students starting with little or no computing experience, to show them that they can progress and ultimately create the type of computer games and other programmes and apps that they use every day.
Microsoft has been working closely with a range of companies, including ARM, Farnell and Samsung, to create the BBC micro:bit. The device itself is less than half the size of a credit card, with a distinctive appearance designed to show off its circuitry and hardware. Microsoft is providing the web-based programming tools, the Microsoft Azure-based hosting service and teacher training materials.
Thomas Ball, a research manager and principal researcher in the software engineering group at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash., said the researchers hope to change the way that teachers as well as students see the role of computing in the classroom. They also want to make sure that kids are learning about computing and the principles of computer science at a young age.
“We think kids should be introduced to coding earlier,” Ball said.
The BBC micro:bit device can be plugged into a computing device using a USB cable and programmed using a browser-based coding and content platform called Microsoft TouchDevelop, which the researchers created to help children build computer programmes with touch screen devices. It now works with all the major smart phones, tablets, desktop operating systems and browsers.
“So many kids stare at the screen, and they don’t go further than tapping along a few well-planned paths,” said Judith Bishop, director of computer science for Microsoft Research Connections.
With Microsoft TouchDevelop, even a child who has no experience in coding whatsoever can quickly start creating simple programmes for their BBC micro:bit, such as a set of commands that makes the gadget’s lights blink.
The fact that they can use Microsoft TouchDevelop on any device also means that this isn’t just confined to the classroom – they can take the BBC micro:bit home and carry on exploring outside of school.
The Microsoft TouchDevelop platform has been designed so that as students get more advanced, they can create even more sophisticated programmes and build libraries of code that they can re-use and share with other users. Eventually, they can progress to use the computer language C++, which professional computer scientists use.
This ability to transition to a more sophisticated programming language is a key differentiator for Microsoft TouchDevelop. And it’s also a crucial element for helping not just create computer enthusiasts, but future computer scientists.
“We’ve all become very good consumers of technology,” Hodges said. “It’s not sustainable. We need to have producers of technology.”
The UK has a rapidly growing number of vacancies within the technology sector, and desperately needs to create a generation of computer-literate individuals to plug the skills gap and maintain its competitive edge on a global scale. The BBC micro:bit will bring the focus back to practical learning, opening young people’s eyes to the endless possibilities of pursuing a career in computer science.
Researchers say there are other benefits to the programme as well, even for children who use the BBC micro:bit but end up going into other fields. In recent years, computational thinking, in which computer science methods are used as a way of tackling problems, has become a core skill in a range of fields, from biology to journalism. Jeannette Wing, a corporate vice president overseeing Microsoft’s core research labs, said that with the micro:bit, “Students can experience a tangible way of working with computational thinking.”
She noted that with the BBC micro:bit, students will both learn about and experience a more engaging and scientific way of attacking problems. These skills are said to help students to learn better across the curriculum and are vital for to helping them solve problems in any subject.
For more information, please visit http://research.microsoft.com/microbit/.
Read more about Microsoft’s TouchDevelop program for the BBC micro:bit.
Read more about Jeannette Wing’s thoughts on computational thinking