BBC Micro:bit — a story of curiosity
Published on 12 November 2022 at 20:22 by
I have a six year old (let's call him v2.0). His brain never stops, and my work as an engineer (primarily software) seems to be of great interest to him. He asks lots of questions, but also knows during incidents that I need to focus. After a particularly difficult incident a few months ago, he congratulated me on fixing the "glitch" and called me a "glitch hunter".
I decided to search, to scour the internet, for something that would fulfil requirements I'd only know when I saw them, and came across the BBC micro:bit, a pocket-sized computer designed for 11-12 year olds (UK year 7, US 6th grade).
The microbit is a great little device, the spiritual successor to the BBC micro from the days of yore, designed to introduce children to both software and hardware.
Onboarding starts with a Scratch-like block coding language, and progresses onto Python (MicroPython, in fact). Microsoft provide an online IDE MakeCode and there's a wealth of tutorials and guides.
While it's really aimed more towards 11-12 year olds, I figured 6 is half of 12 and—armed with this excuse and my own share of excitement (who doesn't love to buy electronics?)—I bought a microbit, and a few extras.
First, the Inventor's Kit, which comprises of 10 experiments, from a physical hello world to handling human device input through to wind power and capacitor charge circuits.
I also decided to buy a robot kit, because robots.
The kit arrived and we opened it up. We plugged into the micro-usb and the intro sequence started. I won't spoil it, but it's very cool.
Now it's not until you try to explain something to a six year old that you realise just how much knowledge you've acquired over the year. Most of us sit here day to day with varying degrees of imposter syndrome, but that's because we become unconsciously competent in our various fields.
Having had many discussions about electronics, and completing a few of the experiments in the inventors kit, we're now at the point where v2.0 understands (to an age appropriate level) voltage, current, resistance, and diodes. We're still working on capacitors and transistors, and have much more to get to, in the future.
The experience so far has been amazing. It's been a great educational tool, playing around with the LED matrix, the onboard speaker, the onboard microphone... and then I discovered, the onboard radio.
Now, I'm a bit of a geek. I've always loved making things, but the thing which has always amazed me is communication. I remember writing my first network program at the age of 11 or 12, and communicating with a friend a few hundred miles away in London via UDP packets. Everything grew from there.
The pandemic wasn't quite the same for me as for most people. I already worked from home, having been fully remote since 2016, and I already baked bread, because carbs are great. So I decided to pick up radio (UK amateur radio, US HAM radio) as a hobby. It's amazing, but a little bit off-topic for this post (though amazing to think that I was able to make contact (albeit one way) with the Halley VI research station in Antartica via a 1mm thick, 40-ish ft long piece of speaker wire!)
So while playing with the microbit, I discovered that it has a radio module built in. It doesn't have a WiFi chip, but it has 2.4 GHz onboard transceiver, and is able to communicate up to 4 dBm (2.5 mW) with other microbits, at a rate of 1-2 mbps. Just think of the possibilities. This seemed to awaken something inside me, and while I'm 33 years old and the microbit is designed for 11-12 year olds, 33 divided by 11 is 3, and you can't argue with maths, so I bought three more microbits and some more components.
And today, today I started tinkering (more on that soon), and somehow 10:00 has turned into 20:21 and I've had a blast. We all need something from time to time to bring back the spark that made us excited all those years ago. So I'll probably be writing about my experiments, my forays into electronics, hardware, software, firmware, all the wares, and buying more wares, while the fire of passion burns.
Here's to curiosity voyages!