The Micro:bit Educational Foundation gives students a digital headstart

Two former ARM executives launch foundation to train millions of children on technology and IoT. Social entrepreneurship in action!

What do you do after your firm gets bought for $32 billion?

For Zach Shelby and Jonny Austin, the answer was clear. They’d give back and help others. They decided the most impact could be made by engaging more young students with technology.

How can kids without technical backgrounds be taught how to invent with technology? How could teachers be enabled to support their students? How could the program be made affordable and scale globally?

Their approach is simple and impactful.

How the Micro:bit Education Foundation started

Shelby and Austin worked at ARM Holdings until its acquisition by Softbank in July 2016. They left to found the Micro:bit Education Foundation, which builds upon a proven BBC micro:bit program. 

The BBC promoted technology invention in the U.K. by giving nearly a million students free BBC micro:bit computers when they entered seventh grade. This made coding accessible to more children and encouraged more girls to take computing subjects. 

“The project started in 2012 as a very tentative idea that very quickly gave us a feeling of ‘what if?’ There was a real opportunity, if not a real need, to inspire young people to get creative with digital technology,” explained Sinead Rocks, the BBC’s head of learning. 

Shelby and Austin decided to adopt the BBC offering and extend it worldwide. Their foundation takes over the original BBC micro:bit with broad support from groups such as ARM, BBC, Microsoft, Nominet, Samsung and the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

BBC micro:bit

The BBC micro:bit is a multi-purpose, affordable computer based on the mbed Hardware Development Kit (HDK). It’s powered by a Nordic micro-controller (MCU) with 16K RAM and 256K Flash.

The micro:bit is small but powerful. It has 25 red LED lights that can flash messages and two programmable buttons to control games or pause and skip songs on a playlist. It detects motion and knows which direction it’s heading. It uses a low-energy Bluetooth (BLE) connection to interact with other devices and the internet.

micro:bit,, SkilledAnalysts

Free tools from Microsoft and Python make the micro:bit easy to program through just an internet browser. There’s even a mobile app to program and interface with micro:bits.

Applications are developed with simple drag-and-drop programs. An online simulator is used for debugging. And it has three online Interactive Development Environments (IDEs):

  1. Microsoft PXT with Blocks and JavaScript
  2. CodeKingdoms JavaScript
  3. MicroPython
micro:bit, BBC, Zach Shelby, SkilledAnalysts

The BBC micro:bit gives teachers and educational organizations an easy-to-use platform to teach STEM skills that align with their curriculum. It enables digital creativity and improves digital literacy. Micro:bit users can tap a library of resources and online training.

The BBC micro:bit costs under $20 and is available from several resellers, including Kitronik, ScienceScope and Tablet Academy. The low cost makes the micro:bit accessible to more students worldwide.

“The BBC micro:bit is extremely popular with children in the U.K., and we’re seeing a similar reaction in Iceland where young people are already using it as a trusted tool for their creative ideas,” said Shelby, CEO of the foundation. “Our mission is to ensure that students, teachers and makers in the U.K. and around the world have long-term access to the micro:bit and get the support and resources that will help them imagine, invent and innovate. For us, this is about putting the micro:bit into the hands of young people everywhere, unlocking the potential to bring great ideas to life quickly.”

A different breed

Startups innovate with technology and business models to generate profits. Social entrepreneurs use a similar approach, but their goal isn’t profit. It's to generate a positive return for society. They use scalable, cost-effective approaches to maximize their impact.

The model Shelby based the Micro:bit Educational Foundation on is the same one the nonprofit group Ashoka follows. The Washington, D.C.-based group supports social entrepreneurs around the world. For over 30 years Ashoka fellows have made a huge impact in education, the environment, healthcare and women’s rights. Four of my personal favorites:

  • Taproot — Mobilizes business professionals to volunteer their expertise to non-profits in their communities.
  • Beats, Rhymes & Life — Encourages young people of color in California to stay in school to complete their education through hip-hop therapy
  • Street Football World — A German group that uses football as a tool for social change in HIV prevention, environmental protection, integration of immigrants and gender equality.
  • Global Press Institute — Trains and employs women in developing countries to be journalists. Their articles and videos are syndicated to media outlets around the world.

The Micro:bit Educational Foundation exemplifies the best of social entrepreneurship. It empowers millions of children to make a better future for themselves.

Shelby and Austin are changing the world one student at a time. Lend them a hand. Donate some micro:bits to your local schools and budding inventors.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.