Helping kids to become a BBC micro:bit

21st September 2017

Cigdem Sengul and Anthony Kirby
Senior Researcher, Researcher

The BBC micro:bit is a tiny programmable computer which makes coding a lot of fun. Nominet is a founding partner of the Micro:bit Educational Foundation and we’re working together to lower the barriers for young people to develop technological skills.

On 1 July we reached out to our own future coders and organised an event for the children of Nominet staff. The event, led by Jonny Austin from the Foundation, attracted around twenty children aged 8-13 and their parents.

The goal of our “unplugged” activity was to show the children what goes on under the hood of a micro:bit. We wanted them to experience what computing means first-hand, so we asked them to simulate a giant micro:bit!

We split the children into two teams to create two micro:bits. Each team was divided into five groups and they each had a single task: “count”, “decode”, “get”, “do” or “put”. Their challenge was to run a piece of code and discover what it did.

The code they were given looked cryptic – a list of four-digit numbers on a whiteboard. The children first learned that each number represented an instruction containing its type and the data it needed. Then they built on their basic numeracy skills to decode and execute each instruction. Step by step, they completed a complex computing activity. They read from and wrote to the computer memory, decoded and executed instructions as if they were a computer’s CPU and registers. Once they’d settled in, they started pipelining the CPU instructions to make it faster by running the tasks in parallel. Remarkable!

The two teams competed to run the code as fast as possible and to figure out the purpose of their programme. The children constantly thought about how to optimise their pipeline, and how to communicate better. We were all impressed with their motivation, hard work and their team spirit. In the end, both teams discovered that their code output the digits of what looked like a phone number. To our relief – and their delight – the phone in the room rang when this number was dialled!

The activity was a lot of fun but, more importantly, we wanted the children to understand that computers are not built on magic but numbers. We hope we inspired them to include computing in their future school and career choices.

Check out the short video for an overview of the day. If you want to run this activity, the link for Jonny Austin’s presentation and our long video should provide an idea about the necessary resources.