A dozen teenagers in military fatigues sit quietly fiddling with small devices in antistatic bags, waiting, like the other kids around them, for further instruction. A teacher murmurs a few sentences of introduction to the activity from the front of the room. It’s the last session in the Oracle Code 4 Kids one-day conference in San Francisco, and it doesn’t seem promising. A short time later, that first impression proves very wrong.
The teens, who are from Discovery ChalleNGe Academy, an alternative high school education partnership by the San Joaquin County Office of Education (SJCOE) and the California National Guard, are happily running programs they have just created using a graphic interface on the BBC micro:bit, a $20, business-card-size microcomputer that can power robots, games, musical instruments, and more.
Kids Can Figure It Out On Their Own
As it happens, the low-key vibe from instructor Ties van de Ven, a Java developer and coach at the Dutch company JDriven, is perfect for the job. “Most kids can figure out micro:bit on their own,” he says. Indeed, it’s supremely easy to follow a blueprint van de Ven has projected on the screen for programming a game of catch between two micro:bits, where onboard accelerometers detect a throwing motion and LED lights indicate that a partner has “caught” the pattern of lights. Soon, pairs of kids are spread out across the room, testing from how far away the devices can detect each other.
Jeremy Love, the educator responsible for bringing the Discovery ChalleNGe Academy students to the event, agrees. As coordinator for the SJCOE’s Code Stack Academy, Stockton’s first not-for-profit coding school, he’s familiar with micro:bit and uses it in classroom and lab programs. Love’s focus is on cultivating science and technology talent in rural Northern California towns such as Lodi, whose grape harvest makes it “the Zinfandel capital of the world.” Tools such as micro:bit figure prominently in Code Stack’s High School computer science curriculum, which Love is developing, because they are so simple, yet extensible. “One of our teachers built a wind tunnel and used micro:bit to measure gravitational pull,” he says.
Ask Mom to Buy One
Love’s students and van de Ven’s teaching colleagues converged at Oracle’s Code 4 Kids conference with others who are at the leading edge of software development education. In Love’s case, the perennial search for curriculum materials led him to Oracle Academy and Code 4 Kids. Van de Ven’s travel is sponsored by his company, which also regularly gives lessons in Dutch schools. “My boss is very concerned that there’s not enough software engineering experience in schools,” van de Ven says. His own childhood exposure to programming in the Netherlands was woefully inadequate. He laughs, “I learned on a scientific calculator.” No matter—he was hooked.
Those playing with micro:bit express the same feeling. “Today is the first time in my life experiencing it. It’s amazing. I didn’t know you could do these types of things,” says Simran Shaotha, a 16-year-old with the Discovery ChalleNGe program who explains that she’s never programmed before. “I programmed my micro:bit so if I shake it, it can say my name [write it in lights]. I’m going to ask my mom to buy one of these.”