Using the BBC micro:bit classroom to deliver STEM lessons

Written by: Richard Fitzwarine-Smith | Published:
Image: Micro:bit

Some schools may struggle to find the time to deliver effective computer science lessons. Richard Fitzwarine-Smith explains how we can use the micro:bit device and micro:bit classroom tool to deliver these lessons in a variety of settings

I provide technology and e-safety support to around eight schools a week in the Shropshire area. My background is teaching maths to secondary school students but around a decade ago I decided to specialise in computing.

I have found that one of the challenges schools face is getting their students and teachers up-to-speed with technology. There are many barriers to this, not least the fact that teachers may feel they have not received the right support and training. Additionally, with the demands of the curriculum, teachers may simply feel they do not have the time to deliver intrinsically practical computer science lessons.

The BBC micro:bit may help to overcome some of these barriers. Training teachers to use this small pocket-sized computing device is quick and easy as the basics can be learned in less than an hour. Once mastered teachers can use the BBC micro:bit to deliver lessons using micro:bit classroom, a new tool with time-saving features.

Time-saving tool

The micro:bit classroom tool works well in both a remote and a classroom setting. Log-in is an easy two-step process and it makes interacting with students easier, a challenge faced by many teachers. It works exactly the same way in a home learning setting as it does in the classroom.

This makes it far easier to keep an eye on students who may need teacher input to guide them as well as positive feedback to boost their confidence and motivation.

The classroom is free and has been set-up so that students can opt to join a digital classroom (they join via a specific code that is issued). Teachers can also review all students’ work live, download a class report of work completed, pause student work, and save to resume for a later class. This provides flexibility and also enables the digital classroom to be used for remote learning.

Encouraging engagement

The micro:bit itself uses tech industry standard hardware with a range of features including an LED display, motion, temperature and light sensors and a compass. It has wireless communication using radio and Bluetooth which can be programmed to send and receive data between devices. It is programmed using free software editors and introduces students to programming and the relationship between software and hardware design.

I have found that teachers who are trained to use this small handheld computing device quickly develop the confidence to generate “wow” moments in lessons: the devices flash, light-up, and so on and it can really seem impressive.

This wow moment is vital – if pupils get this in year 7 you can build pupils’ interest in computing throughout their entire secondary school career.

Naturally this means that one of the first questions I ask when I go into schools is whether they have any BBC micro:bit devices. The Micro:bit Educational Foundation delivered a million devices to schools back in 2016, but even schools that have not kept them will find the devices are cheap and easy to purchase.

Once BBC micro:bits are used regularly by staff, feedback and enthusiasm grows – especially once they realise that there are a variety and range of projects and lessons available to support using the device.

Curriculum benefits

I have found that students love being able to programme and control a physical device, and with all the buttons and lights on show this animation element has universal appeal. This helps young people to quickly engage in computing lessons. It also enables them to quickly grasp key content on the curriculum – including how to input, process, output, data transfer and encryption. This is important because in years 7 and 8, students do block-based coding using the Makecode interface and in years 9 to 11 they use text-based coding which uses the Python language.

Bringing a lesson to life

The micro:bit provides an excellent way to approach real-life problems. For example, many people struggle with the idea of how wi-fi works and how messages can go remotely and wirelessly from laptop to internet router. The micro:bit can show how this communication works by demonstrating connectivity and how the signals are sent using code (see attached pdfs).

One of the most common projects I set up are ones that encourage children to link two micro:bits to send data remotely to one another. Schools have used this to create a remote control number generator (based on a dice that can be controlled from a distance) and a remote controlled vehicle or crane.

Lesson ideas

Teachers who want to link science and coding more closely together will find it useful to use the BBC micro:bit in conjunction with micro:bit classroom. For example, you can teach GCSE students how to programme the micro:bit to detect water levels in the soil around a plant. The micro:bit can be programmed to constantly measure the light level and temperature and you can download the data. Teachers can search additional science topic and cross-curricular ideas here.

As well as science, there are many additional cross-curricular lessons available that teachers might want to explore (especially during lockdown) including health tech – where students work in teams to design and prototype their own health tech innovation – and an introduction to cyber-security. For more, see https://microbit.org/lessons/

Setting up a lesson with micro:bit classroom

  • Step 1: Log-in to set up a coding page. Once you have this you get a unique classroom name and a remote six-digit pin.
  • Step 2: Choose your programming language. Some schools may choose to start their Python programming in years 7 or 8, or offer a mix of programming languages.
  • Step 3: After entering the pin, the students can join the lesson and you will see all their names appear.
  • Step 4: The students will be able to see the template that the teacher has created. As they do their work you can view their progress in real time.
  • Step 5: Work can be paused and resumed again at any point. Once the lesson ends you can download a report so have a record of all the work completed during the lesson – invaluable for Ofsted purposes.

Richard Fitzwarine Smith set up AmazingICT nine years ago to offer face-to-face technology and e-safety support to schools. He previously taught maths at a secondary school for 20 years. Follow him @AmazingICT_Rob or visit http://amazingict.co.uk/

Further information & resources


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