How the BBC micro:bit hand-held computer has enabled the development of critical skills in Canada
Students learn vital problem-solving skills at School District No.43 in Coquitlam
For several years, School District No.43 in Coquitlam, Canada – the third largest in British Columbia with around 32,000 students – has focused on how to encourage innovation in schools and use technology to transform the overall learning experience for students. A key part of that strategy involves developing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programmes that instil in pupils the core capacity to solve problems using technology.
From elementary school through middle school (11 to 13 years) to secondary school (14 to 18 years), all pupils are given the opportunity to develop critical skills such as problem solving, which they can apply in their later years in sciences and other areas of the curriculum. Whatever specialist courses they take at senior level, the programme arms them with the competency of being able to solve real-world problems through technology.
Patricia Gartland, Superintendent at School District No.43 says, “The Coquitlam School District is committed to ensuring success for the class of 2030 and beyond. This dictates that students are actively engaged with technology to innovate and solve problems. Coding and STEM activities are a critical component of ensuring students are prepared for the exciting opportunities the future holds.”
Choosing the micro:bit
Stephen Whiffin, Director of Instruction and CIO at School District No.43 explains, “The micro:bit coding device from Farnell was chosen as the enabling tool to achieve these design thinking goals in schools. The micro:bit was the only product of its kind that combined a ‘low floor’, easy-to-use entry point for students with a ‘high ceiling’, where the only limitations would be the pupils’ imaginations and the accessories they use.”
To date, Farnell has supplied the school district with 2,000 micro:bits. A key factor in its selection was that while the micro:bit facilitates practical coding experiences using Microsoft MakeCode, its process-control nature also makes it possible to merge digital and physical aspects in a way that helps students make sense of the world around them through computational thinking.
Within just a few minutes of using a micro:bit, pupils are able to make connections between its functionality and an increasingly automated environment, whether this is relating the technology to smart homes, heat sensors, automatic doors or something else. The micro:bit gives students the ability to imitate those levels of functionality in the classroom and replicate the way technology works in their physical world. Moreover, through this design thinking approach, pupils are given the tools to improve the functionality or adapt it for use in other applications.
Giving confidence to educators
No matter what the subject area, teachers in School District No.43 must demonstrate that pupils are capable of the core competency of critical thinking. Rather than simply having the knowledge in a stand-alone subject, students must be able to apply problem-solving strategies in a whole range of different domains. James Gill, Elementary Teacher, School District No.43 says, “One of the things my students enjoyed about micro:bit was that it wasn't just another way to teach coding. It presented the opportunity to make something they would use in the real world.”
Stephen Whiffin and his colleague Dave Sands, Principal of Technology Implementation, continually work hard to persuade teachers across the board, such as those teaching grade nine science, to design experiments for the classroom that are dependent on process-control systems - in the full knowledge that pupils will already have the skills to carry out the task. This was simply not possible before the micro:bit programme.
For some teachers, building the concepts of coding and computational thinking into the curriculum was daunting and only early adopters responded to the availability of the technology. However, having an easy entry point made it possible for them to overcome their initial doubts and engage with the micro:bit. Teachers came to understand that while some learning tools might have a novelty element to them that will interest pupils in the short-term, they are usually built around pre-determined functions which cannot be altered. By contrast, the micro:bit offers flexibility and enables children to engage and integrate creativity with logic, using their imagination to create their own unique solutions.
Today, teachers see that while very young children appreciate the low floor element of the device, older pupils can use it to design complex environments such as smart cities or build robots that the micro:bit can control. All pupils are able to engage in the design process in a natural and legitimate way and there is now an obvious pathway to full-scale design thinking – while they can do simple tasks in grade five, they can construct complex science experiments when they reach grade 11.
Dave Sands says, “The authentic skillsets that students are developing using the micro:bit are unlike anything we’ve seen from any of the other products that we’ve encountered. Where else can you use the same device to monitor traffic light sensors and build smart cities? The pedagogical outcomes with other tools are extremely limited.” Elementary School Teacher, James Gill added, “My students found the Micro:bit tutorials on MakeCode to be easy to follow. Some of my more advanced students then started "hacking" the existing code in different tutorials to make something new.”
In 2019, School District No.43 supplied all grade nine science classes with 3D printers so that students could build components for the micro:bit to control in science experiments. This represents a major step forward because it enables students to pull together a range of design skills they’ve learnt across many subjects, including STEM. Now they will be able to learn science in a far more effective way because the experiments they do with the micro:bit represent genuine real-world problem solving applying the principles of science and mathematics.
Stephen Whiffin concludes: “We are now focusing on the higher grade levels while leveraging the capacity we’ve been building at the younger levels, so pupils are now able to achieve really amazing goals that are transformative not in terms of coding but in terms of changing the way that science is taught in our schools.”