The BBC’s Micro Bit could empower the next generation of chemists

BBC Micro Bit

I remember the first video game I played at school. It was on the BBC Micro, and cast you as an archaeologist digging up various bits of Roman tat to solve a historical mystery. Find an object you couldn’t identify and – poof! – you were transported to Roman times to go and pester the locals about what it could be. It was one of the first sparks that fired my interest in science.

Now, almost 35 years since the Micro’s launch, the BBC is making another stab at the education market with its Micro Bit, a basic piece of hardware being given free to all 11-year-olds across the UK. Similar to other pared-down machines (such as the Raspberry Pi), the credit-card sized kit has Bluetooth, LEDs and motion sensors. The aim is to inspire a generation of coders: one school has collected temperature data from space by attaching a Micro Bit to a weather balloon, while another has hooked up a bunch in series to act as a message board. It certainly beats typing 0.7734 on an upside-down calculator.

The BBC initiative is hardly alone in recognising this potential. The 2012 Raspberry Pi hit the hobby market with a bang – by September 2015 it had sold over 5 million units worldwide – and there are a plethora of free ‘learn to code’ sites, such as Code Academy or Google’s HTML5 Rocks, available to anyone with an internet connection.

These coding projects may seem pointless fun, but anything that gets kids interested in science and computer literacy is to be welcomed. Already the chemists of today, never mind the future, need to be fluent in code. Computer modelling is now an essential part of the discipline, as demonstrated by the sheer volume of papers based on electronic data that suggest new molecular structures and targets. It’s not just analysts who need to be computer savvy, either. Data entry, grant submission and accessing the literature means digital nous is critical for everyone in and out of the lab. Besides, the webcam was invented at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory to show when the office coffee pot was empty – you never know where the next tech innovation will appear.

The Micro Bit also offers a reminder of the relentless march of technology. The device is 70 times smaller, yet 18 times more powerful, than the Micro that powered my archaeologist fantasy. Many scientists got their first start with chemistry sets, and if you look at similar kits today you’ll see friendly apps already there to support any young experimenter’s burgeoning interest in the molecular world. Just imagine what the next 35 years could bring.