This fall, every 11- and 12-year-old school kid in the U.K. will be given a BBC Micro:bit, a tiny pocket-sized computer with no screen, no keyboard, nothing that most people would recognize as a computer. Until you program it, it sits there as dead as a circuit board ripped from any other electronic device. But hook it up to the world with clips and cables and sprinkle on a little code and it can turn into a guitar, an automatic plant-waterer, a loudspeaker, a games console, or almost anything a kid can dream up.
If you are of a certain age, you might remember when kid’s electronics and chemistry kits were still dangerous enough to be interesting, and offered an intoxicating world of experimentation and fun. The BBC Micro:bit is that kit, made for today.
Designed by U.K. startup Technology Will Save Us, the credit-card-sized circuit board comprises a 5×5 LED display, programmable buttons, and accelerometer, Bluetooth radio, a compass, and temperature and moisture sensors. Edge connectors let you hook it up to the outside world using clips or banana plugs, and it can connect to other devices via USB. It has most of the features of a smartphone, only it’s built for tinkering.
The mission is simple. “We are trying to show kids that hacking and coding can be as much fun as picking up a paint brush, or making something out of wood or metal,” says Bethany Koby, CEO and co-founder of Technology Will Save Us.
One million units will be given to 11- and 12-year-olds in the U.K. this October, mirroring the original BBC Micro computer from the ’80s, which could be found in most schools thanks to a government subsidy. The cost of the BBC Micro:bit will be born by the project’s partner companies: Arm, Microsoft, Farnell, Nordic, Freescale, Microsoft, Sciencescope, and the BBC.
To make the BBC Micro:bit more kid-friendly, Technology Will Save Us also sells specialty kits, which are the modern equivalent of those old electronics sets. The kits contain everything needed to complete a project, from crocodile clips to cookie cutters to capacitors. The kits focus on one task: making electronic dough circuits, or building a speaker from objects you find at home, but also serve as a launchpad for kids to start hacking with the parts.
There’s even a soldering kit, which promises a little of that 1970s-style danger.
“It was specifically designed for kids from the beginning,” says Koby. “[which] forced us to focus on simplicity[.] We wanted young people to feel simultaneously confident and challenged as they created projects and inventions with their micro:bits.”
Everybody is familiar with computers, but nobody knows how they work. And unlike record players, Walkmans and other non-digital devices, taking a computer apart won’t teach you anything about what goes on inside it.
“Most consumer electronics are ‘black boxes’ and do not invite us in to fix and modify/customize,” Koby told us. “So most young people are completely unfamiliar with the relationship between technology and what actually makes it work.”
By letting kids not just program the Micro:bit, but also dig into the hardware, and even hook it up to their own phones, the hope is that they will have more power over their other everyday tools. It benefits the country, too. The tinker-tastic 1980s home-computer boom can be linked to the UK’s later prominence in the games industry. Getting a new generation of kids interested in building digital toys, instead of just tapping on their screens, is essential for future industry.
“We happily give children paint brushes when they’re young, with no experience,” says Sinead Rocks, head of BBC learning, “it should be exactly the same with technology.”