Master teacher Clifford French has been trying out the micro:bit with his class...
"Asked to take a Year 7 class to release a colleague for other duties, I jumped at the opportunity to introduce students to coding with the micro:bit. Small problem, they had not arrived. Fortunately, as a CAS Master Teacher I was able to call on the Regional Coordinators to cobble together 15, just enough for one between two for a class of 30.
The first decision – which software platform to use – was a “no brainer” for me. It had to be MicroPython using the excellent Mu editor from Nicholas Tollervey, available for Windows, MAC OS, Linux and Raspberry Pi and now also for Chromebook. Why not start with the Block Editor or Touch Develop? Building on the old joke about there being 10 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don’t, for me there are two types of people, those who can build a flat pack wardrobe from the diagrams and those who can’t. I am in the second category and can’t use Touch Develop either.
Thinking back to the fundamentals of programming as outlined on a course from www.teachinglondoncomputing.org, I decided to start with sequencing. The first session, delivered through Google classroom, challenged students to think about sequencing in everyday life. It is quite difficult to beep an Oystercard before getting on the bus: order matters. Having completed a very short document on sequencing, they coded a simple sequence on the micro:bit:
- Greet a friend
- Short pause
This was enough for a 40 minute period that included distributing the micro:bits, plugging them in (would you believe it’s pretty much the same as plugging in any other USB device?), coding and collecting them back in again. The great thing about this lesson was students’ success: every student managed the task, some more easily than others, but no one said that the micro:bit did not work.
The second lesson was headlined as “Same but different”. We started by discussing, and noting on a Google doc, the different functions of a phone. When students play different tracks, the function – play music – is the same. The object (variable) changes.
We then applied this to displaying different objects or variables in MicroPython. In the short plenary, students were able to confirm the two key terms. Comments on Google Hangouts were that it was fun but some students could not see what the point was: what was the micro:bit all about?
The third lesson began with lists. We all have lists, in our heads or on paper. Students made a list of what they need for school and then a list of greetings in the languages represented in the classroom (plus also Darth Vader for some reason).
They filled in the gaps on a simple loop I coded for them to display each greeting in turn followed by a pause. An attempt to display random greetings was a stretch too far, not conceptually but apparently because of a bug in the version of Mu we had downloaded. There were a few moments of teacher fudge as we moved on to something else but the students were not fooled: the teacher had no immediate answer. Fortunately, downloading a later version solved the issue and proved to be a discussion point in a later lesson.
Student consensus was that it was fun but how was micro:bit going to help them invent the future?
We were fortunate to get a double lesson as our fourth: this was largely because we had a visitor from a company researching attitudes to the micro:bit for the BBC. The lesson began with a quick review of lists and scrolling text. Where do you see scrolling text? One place is on tube trains. Students were asked to identify the stations between school and the Barbican for a trip to the Museum of London. One girl did not like trains, so she did bus stops instead.
Using the same syntax, students displayed scrolling text to display “The next station is …..” from the list of stations. Inventive students made a number of variations on the message.
They then had a choice. Add a flashing LED before or after the announcement or have a buzzer to warn of the closing doors. I brought to the lesson 8 LEDs (which cost about 5p each) and some buzzers (79p each) and 40 crocodile leads which, again, are cheap. I attached red and black jumper wires to the buzzers to make it fairly obvious which pin had to be connected to GND (ground) on the micro:bit. I had handouts (on paper) showing the code; all the students had to do initially was decide whether to flash the LEDs or sound the buzzers before or after the announcements. This challenge showed some marked differences in attitudes. While all students had achieved success in coding the basic announcement, many had difficulty with the physical devices. Of those experiencing problems, the majority solved them and were delighted: it was generally a case of getting the polarity correct – black means ground, red means positive. Just a few crossed their arms – “can’t do this!” – but I was pleased that only one student said that the micro:bit did not work. This was an improvement on previous groups I’ve had where students had been happy that coding works until it gives a different answer from what they expect. Entering 5 + 3 in IDLE gives 8 – OK, that’s obvious and Python “works”. Entering 25 * 6 gives 150, which students knew was incorrect because 6 multiplied by 25 is obviously 125. It took quite a lot of work with a calculator to restore faith in Python.
At the end of the lesson I asked the students what had made them proud: two girls had decided to play music before the station announcements. Perhaps as a future service we should suggest to TFL that they play tunes to soothe harrassed commuters and drown out the squeak from tiny headsets.
Having a few physical devices enriches experiences with the micro:bit; I will be using some LEDs in the next lesson which will explore conditions using If and the device’s buttons to flash an LED or display an image on the 5 by 5 matrix.
I would certainly encourage other teachers to use micro:bit with MicroPython as a way into text based coding. Students do not need to have worked with Python on a PC first.
Were there any behaviour management issues? Only one. I had a teaching assistant in the lessons who was so keen on micro:bit that it was really difficult getting her to give back the micro:bit and Chromebook at the end of the lesson. She’s going to take one home for the half term holiday.
I hope I am not deluding myself by thinking that students have enjoyed their experiences with micro:bit and have developed some thinking and problem skills, plus a little coding. With my own confidence bolstered by these lessons, I may graduate to Touch Develop. As for the flat pack wardrobes, the jury is still out."