Hardware

Can this $14 matchbox-sized device fire up America's kids to get coding?

The BBC micro:bit packs a 25 LED matrix display, motion sensor, accelerometer and two buttons onto a tiny 4cmx5cm board.

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Image: The micro:bit Foundation

A matchbox-sized, programmable device launches in the US and Canada today, aimed at offering children a gentle introduction to the world of computers.

Already used in schools across the UK, the BBC micro:bit is designed to make it easy for kids to write simple programs to control the board's hardware, with creations to date including basic games and animations.

The device packs a 25 LED matrix display, a motion sensor, accelerometer and two buttons onto a tiny 4cmx5cm board. It can be programmed using easy-to-grasp tools, such as the drag-and-drop programming environment Scratch, or if the user is more confident, by coding in a variety of languages, including JavaScript or MicroPython.

The board is available individually for $13.54, all the way up to more than $3,500 for packs of 300.

The educational goals of the micro:bit are similar to the Raspberry Pi, the hugely successful $35 board, which has racked up more than 14 million sales since its 2012 launch.

However, the board is far simpler than the credit card-sized Pi, which is able to run a full desktop OS. In comparison to the Pi 3's 64-bit, quad-core system-on-a-chip, the micro:bit uses the low-power 32-bit ARM Cortex M0 microprocessor, more commonly used for tasks such as power management in larger systems.

The simple device can connect via Bluetooth, and powered using batteries or over USB. For more complex projects, the micro:bit can be hooked up to other boards such as the Pi or Arduino, as well as external hardware, via its 20-pin connector.

The micro:bit Foundation aims to put the device in the hands of two million children across the US and Canada by 2020, and hopes to eventually reach more than 100 million kids around the world.

"The goal of the micro:bit is to give educators and parents an easy-to-use tool to teach the basics of computer programming and inspire students to imagine, invent and innovate," said Hal Speed, head of North America at the micro:bit Foundation.

The foundation has partnered with organizations that specialize in developing curricula, including Project Lead The Way in the U.S. and Fair Chance Learning in Canada. Microsoft has also written its own curriculum for the micro:bit, and lesson plans are available on the micro:bit website.

The foundation cites a recent study conducted by Gallup that found that while 90 percent of parents in the U.S. want their child to learn computer science, only 40 percent of schools offer computer programming or coding classes. The foundation highlighted that the diversity problem in STEM fields starts in elementary school, with girls and students of color and from lower-income households all less likely to have access to computer science learning in K-12 schools.

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About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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