BBC micro:bit: A Q&A with Richard Curtin

As Senior Director of Premier Farnell’s Strategic Alliance program, Richard Curtin has played a key role in facilitating our involvement with the BBC micro:bit project.

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Richard Curtin, Senior Director of Premier Farnell’s Strategic Alliance program

How did Premier Farnell get involved with the BBC micro:bit project?

Over the past three years, Premier Farnell has acquired a number of subsidiary companies which sit under what we call our Technical Product Groups (TPG) division. This new business division brings over 150 professional design engineers that work in a variety of technical disciplines including embedded design, analog layout, wireless and more. In practice this means that we’re not merely a supplier of electronic products, we’re actively developing and designing new technology in collaboration with major manufacturers such as Texas Instruments, AWS, Intel, STMicroelectronics, IBM, NXP and many more.

We have enjoyed a strong partnership with ARM Holdings, who were among the first external companies to get involved in the BBC micro:bit project. ARM knew that element14 had a very strong track record in design services, manufacturing and distribution, so as they started to map out the requirements of the partnership with the BBC, they realised that Premier Farnell could bring a lot to the table in terms of cost and design optimisation, manufacturing and logistics.

So they made the introduction, and we signed a partnership agreement with the BBC in May 2015, on the understanding that this would be a non-profit undertaking at the outset. Our aspiration in joining the project was initially to approach it as a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, with aspirations to develop it into a legacy project in the long run. Right now we’re focused on delivering the BBC micro:bit to one million school children across the UK, but in the future we see the device evolving into a powerful brand - following in the footsteps of the Raspberry Pi and Beagle Bone Black.

Why did the BBC want to pursue a project like this?

Twenty years ago the BBC launched the BBC Micro, a computer system that was adopted by many UK schools and represented a huge milestone in computing and education in this country. Many of the founders and CEOs of the biggest technology companies in the world have highlighted the BBC Micro initiative as a major factor in introducing them to coding and something that actively helped them to get to where they are today.

The BBC was looking at opportunities to re launch and rejuvenate the BBC Micro initiative for the modern education landscape where accessibility and affordability are key. It’s no secret that there’s a major skills and education gap developing in the UK when it comes to coding, and with the introduction of core computing skills to the National Curriculum in 2014, they saw an opportunity to play a key role in inspiring and empowering the next generation.

People may not necessarily associate the BBC with computing, but they’ve actually had roots in technology and education for decades, going back to the very first BBC Microcomputer system and expanding into the many groundbreaking initiatives they’re involved with all over the world today. The BBC micro:bit is a powerful, accessible, low-cost device that’s very different to the early BBC Micro computers, but the idea behind it remains much the same. In giving one million devices away to school children for free, they hope to be the catalyst for the UK education system to develop into a real world leader in coding and electronics.

How has Premier Farnell worked with other partners of the program?

There are inevitably going to be a lot of stakeholders in a project of this size. In addition to the BBC, Premier Farnell has worked particularly closely with a company called NXP, whose microprocessor and sensing solutions are featured in the device.

We also worked with Nordic Semiconductor, who provided the wireless and bluetooth functionality for the BBC micro:bit. They’re a great example of a dynamic that’s developed as a direct result of this initiative, because we didn’t previously have a distribution partnership with Nordic, but through working with them on the BBC micro:bit project our semiconductor product management team are in talks with them about how we could potentially work together in our core distribution business in the future.

We’ve also worked closely with ARM as the teams developed the embedded technology featured on the device, and Microsoft, who created the web environment which supports the BBC micro:bit website, featuring a wide range of tools students can use with the device, such as various programming languages, tutorials and teacher’s guides, all of which were created and developed by the Microsoft education team.

BBC micro:bit - A Q&A with Richard Curtin

Did you get a lot of feedback from teachers and students while developing the project?

Absolutely. Bringing the teachers and students along with us on this journey has been really important in terms of getting the right look and feel for the device, and in what we want to achieve with it. We’ve brought teachers in to look at every stage of design, including production of teaching materials, the programming languages we incorporate, and general usability.

We’ve also run hands-on demo sessions and hosted feedback groups for students throughout the project. We really wanted to be sure that the form factor was right, that the device was easy to use but not too simplistic, and that it gave the kids plenty to get their teeth into. I think this focus on involving students and teachers has been a major factor in why the initial feedback we’re now receiving for the project has been so overwhelmingly positive.

What will success look like for this project?

The long term goal of this project is to provide every 11-year-old child in the UK with a BBC micro:bit, not just this year but every year in the future. When the device becomes commercially available, the plan is that a charitable organisation will be put in place through the BBC, similar to the Raspberry Pi Foundation. A royalty from every commercial sale of a device will go towards helping to fund the initiative to make them freely available to school children.

What’s the difference between coding on a BBC micro:bit and coding on a traditional computer?

The BBC micro:bit encourages children to create something physical and tangible. Because it’s a small, low-cost device, it brings a different level of accessibility that a traditional computer couldn’t really provide. The groundbreaking thing about the BBC micro:bit is that it’s truly agnostic in terms of how you use it. You can wear it, you can carry it around and because it’s highly connectable, it allows you to do some coding wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. It can be connected to your iPad, your smartphone, your tablet, a battery source and so much more. It creates an entirely different dynamic for coding.

BBC micro:bit - A Q&A with Richard Curtin
"Coding is enshrined in the UK national curriculum now, so it’ssomething that both teachers and the government are taking veryseriously."

Why is coding so important?

Coding is enshrined in the UK national curriculum now, so it’s something that both teachers and the government are taking very seriously. In the modern world, practically everything we do involves computing at some level, but we’re facing a major skills gap - there simply aren’t enough qualified developers and coders out there at the moment to meet the demand. Not only do established industries rely on coding more than ever before, there are also major new markets emerging, such as cyber security, which require high-level coding skills.

Programming languages like Python and Scratch are making coding in the classroom much more practical and accessible, so there’s no reason why UK children can’t receive the grounding and knowledge that can open up a huge variety of opportunities for them in the future.

What should teachers do when their students receive the BBC micro:bit?

Teachers across the UK have already been provided with BBC micro:bits so that they can familiarise themselves with the device and with the website. The BBC has also run a number of online focus groups in association with Microsoft, so that teachers can get to know the teaching materials and conduct dry runs to build up their confidence in articulating the coding scenarios that the BBC and Microsoft have put together.

How can a parent best support their child in using and learning from the BBC micro:bit?

There’s a huge amount of excitement building around the BBC micro:bit and what it represents. This is coming from the schools themselves, and also from marketing directly to the target audience. The device has been featured in popular TV programs such as Doctor Who, to hopefully capture the imaginations of our target audience.

Our hope is that this excitement will extend beyond the classroom and kids will be keen to bring their ideas home with them and try things out on their own time. This is where the BBC micro:bit website really comes into its own, as it’s very much tailored towards a parent/child scenario. The projects featured on the website are very accessible and avoid overly technical language. The feedback we’re getting suggests that parents in the UK are very aware of the importance of coding and digital literacy, and BBC micro:bit should be an excellent tool for them to play an active role in their children’s development in this area.

"Our hope is that this excitement will extend beyond the classroom andkids will be keen to bring their ideas home with them and try things out ontheir own time."

There are many coding devices on the market, what makes the BBC micro:bit unique?

The BBC micro:bit is more than just a piece of hardware, it’s a complete end-to-end solution that really comes alive when the user registers the device at the online environment. The flexibility, accessible content and the huge range of projects and options available really set the BBC micro:bit apart. It’s also unique in terms of the price point, accessibility and form factor.

In terms of similar devices on the market, there are certainly parallels with products like Codebug and Raspberry Pi, but I believe the devices all have a distinct role to play in the broader spectrum of coding in education. Codebug, for example, is pitched more towards primary age children, and that’s reflected in the design and functionality. BBC micro:bit targets secondary school pupils, so it’s a little more advanced and varied in what it can do. For example it carries wireless and bluetooth technology, which Codebug doesn’t have.

Raspberry Pi is a more advanced single board computer, which many pupils may need to build up to before they really engage with it. Kids who have been introduced to computing through Codebug and BBC micro:bit should have a lot more confidence to move on to more powerful platforms like Raspberry Pi. The wireless technology and edge connectors on the BBC micro:bit make the device compatible with Raspberry Pi too, so students can incorporate both into their projects when they’re ready.

"BBC micro:bit is the biggest coding in education project in the UK forover twenty years, and I’m immensely proud that Premier Farnell has beeninvolved with such a groundbreaking initiative."

Do you have any personal favourite projects from the many that are featured on the BBC micro:bit website?

Any of the projects that take advantage of the wireless sensing and Microsoft cloud technology are really exciting, because I can really see how they have the potential to be hugely popular with students. For example, there’s a project that allows you to create your own security device that you can attach to, for example, your bedroom door. The sensors on the device will detect whenever anybody opens or closes the door, and send that information straight to the cloud, where you can access it at any time via the BBC micro:bit website. Things like that really tend to capture children’s imaginations, which we hope will encourage them to go beyond the available templates and start thinking outside the box.

What have been some of your most rewarding moments of this project so far?

BBC micro:bit is the biggest coding in education project in the UK for over twenty years, and I’m immensely proud that Premier Farnell has been involved with such a groundbreaking initiative. One defining moment that really stands out is the day the final design was completed and the prototypes passed all the tests required for us to commit to volume production. At that point, the device became more than a concept, it was a real, working device that we could hold in our hands.

At 8am on Tuesday 22nd March we officially launched the BBC micro:bit by using the device to open the London Stock Exchange for the day. The traders who were present were all aware of the many innovations and companies that came about as a direct result of the BBC Micro initiative twenty years ago, and they were really excited to help usher in the next generation of inventors, companies and start-ups who will hopefully be equally inspired by the BBC micro:bit. There was a lot of cheering and excitement, it was a special moment.

That said, I think the most exciting and rewarding moments are still to come. We’re really only at the beginning of the journey. Now that the devices are being delivered across the UK, the fun can really begin.

BBC micro:bit - A Q&A with Richard Curtin

What does the future hold for BBC micro:bit?

I think we’re going to see the BBC micro:bit take on many different guises in the next few years. We’re already working to provide users with a BBC power pack to make the device truly wearable and portable. We’re also releasing an official BBC micro:bit case, with full support from the BBC, and there will be other accessories that allow you to give your device a distinct look and feel, and to incorporate a wider range of technologies.

I think we’re also going to be able to show how all of the various partners who have supported the initiative are now going to be able to add value in their own unique ways. For example, Samsung is developing a number of mobile apps what will be compatible with the device, while other partners are creating special bundles and kits aimed at making more complex projects such as robotics and IoT sensing solutions accessible out of the box.

At the moment, the BBC micro:bit program is exclusive to the UK, but we’re planning to expand into other territories throughout 2016, with the aspiration that by the end of the year it’ll be available for sale globally through our website.

To find out more about the BBC micro:bit initiative, visit the official BBC micro:bit website, or join the conversation at the element14 community.