Blog Maja Katinić Vidović 16.01.2019

Maja Katinić Vidović

Erasmus+ -kouluttaja ja sähköisten oppimisalustojen asiantuntija. Hän on mukana useissa kansainvälisissä projekteissa koulutuksen ja oppimisen asiantuntijana. Hän käyttää aikansa yhdistellen oppimista ja tietotekniikkaa, lukien vanhan koulukunnan kirjoja, urheilemalla ja katsellen Netflixiä.

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Micro:bit – so small, yet so powerful

If you are just starting off your digital adventure as part of your youth work, BBC micro:bit is one of the most useful little tools to begin with. With the aim of upgrading computer education in UK schools, BBC launched a campaign in 2015 to provide one million micro:bit devices to pupils. What they didn’t expect was that micro:bit would soon become popular on a global scale. To briefly explain the devise in not-so-technical terms: it’s a programmable platform with which you can play and create even if you have never written a line of code in your life. That is what makes it perfect for both youngsters and youth workers.

Although originally designed for usage in formal education, micro:bit instantly became famous in the makers community and digital youth work. It is now being used in workshops for youth and adults, festivals, meetups, schools and even personal home projects. One can create an alarm, humidity sensor for plants, temperature sensor, simple game or a robot. Based on BBC’s research, 86% of students said the micro:bit made Computer Science more interesting and half of the teachers who have used the micro:bit say they now feel more confident as a teacher, particularly those who say they are not very confident in teaching Computing (Micro:bit 2018).

As STEM education (Science, technology, engineering and maths) and digital youth work collide more and more, it is becoming more important to teach youth not only about the possibilities of technology, but also about the responsibility of using it. However, jobs of today and tomorrow are requiring the same level of knowledge in both technical and “soft” skills. In order to combine both of these skill sets, micro:bit has proven to be a great tool, especially when working with the youth.

What is the micro:bit?

The device is small – just about half the size of a credit card – and has an ARM Cortex-M0 processor, accelerometer and magnetometer sensors, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, a display consisting of 25 LEDs, two programmable buttons, and can be powered by either USB or an external battery pack. The device inputs and outputs are configured through five ring connectors that form part of a larger 23-pin edge connector. For such a small form factor, this little board can be surprisingly versatile! One of the most important factors here is versatility, as you can see in the later examples; the device alone gets you started, but there is still ample room for expanding once you get more ambitious with your projects.

Devices can be bought from resellers (check for the list of resellers in different countries) and usually, one device is used by one person. After obtaining the board the next step is to connect it to a computer, tablet or a mobile phone and to give it “instructions” by using one of the visual editors – Javascript Blocks or Python. Both editors are very easy to use, and they help children in learning how to code, developing logical thinking and problem solving. After all, that’s what coding is mostly about regardless of the programming language being used, and these basic skills are transferable to any programming environment. After coding a micro:bit to perform in specific way, download the code, copy it to a USB drive on your computer which is connected to micro:bit (or upload via Bluetooth) and the device will perform the given task. It can really be an eye-opening moment for youngsters and educators alike when a physical device works according to how you programmed it!

Practical activities with micro:bit

Start by showing your group of young people a simple step-by-step on how to code a micro:bit to shine LEDs in a shape of a smile. To encourage creativity, ask the group to think how else they can use the LED lights on the device. To practice argumentation, ask every participant to explain their idea and allow every idea to be tested. Testing is a part of “learning by doing”; it teaches youth a simple method of trial and error, but it also encourages “out-of-the-box” thinking, so make sure to always leave enough space and time for participants to test, fail and succeed.

Over time, you can add more complex tasks such as using a micro:bit as a thermometer or adding more hardware to the device. Micro:bit is even more powerful when combined with crocodile plugs, spring connectors or different types of sensors. However, one of the coolest things for kids and youth is that micro:bit can be connected to a mobile device via Bluetooth. Try using Bitty Blue app for Android and iOS to turn a micro:bit into a compass or to design different patterns.

If you are working in a community-based organisation, ask a group of youngsters to think about the problems and challenges in their community, school or at home. Write them all down and brainstorm the possible solutions, focusing on those which can include the micro:bit. Some schools are using micro:bit, coded by their students, as moisture sensors for the plants in the school garden. Six students from London’s Highgate School came up with the idea of using the micro:bit to help people with autism recognise other people’s emotional states as part of a one-day coding challenge earlier this year. The team coded the computer so that a user could scroll through a series of graphics, shown via the LEDs, of faces presenting different moods. When they found a match, they could press another button to make the LEDs state what the image represented – for example “happy”, “sad” or “angry” (Kelion 2018).

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. Most important thing is to familiarize children and youth with all the features of micro:bit. Once they know what can be done, their imagination will do the magic. However, make sure to explain that working with micro:bits or any other electronic device is not a competition but a collaboration, which is one of the many benefits of this little tool. Other benefits include increased engagement of young people, boosting future employability by making learning about technology fun and improved learning through interactivity and hands-on experience. Finally, micro:bit is affordable, even from the perspective of non-profit organisations – its average price is about 25€.

One must admit that all the benefits and methods fit perfectly into the principles of youth work; they include, but are not limited to, the development of new skills and attitudes, building a sense of community and positive group atmosphere, the development of decision-making skills and creativity, and last but not least, encouragement for social responsibility.  Even if youth workers use other tools such as Arduino or Raspberry Pi, it is undoubtedly obvious that STEM education needs to be an essential part of youth work. Every school, youth organisation or youth centre should have at least one micro:bit (which is the basic premise behind the device) and adults should support youth in exploring, playing and creating with it.

As a youth worker, don’t be afraid. There is a huge online community of micro:bit users, a number of tutorials and how-to guides. All you need is a bit of will and motivation. If we are supporting youth to step outside their comfort zone and be more creative, especially with technology, then we should also lead by example. Into the unknown and good luck, fellow youth workers.

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Maja Katinić Vidović