Zach Shelby heads the newly launched micro:bit Educational Foundation

3 mins read

The micro:bit Educational Foundation has been launched as a not-for-profit organisation which intends to lower barriers to technology invention among young people, makers and developers. It also aims to provide support for teachers and educational organisations looking to improve digital skills.

The Foundation, which is taking over from the original BBC micro:bit partnership in a phased transition, is headed by Zach Shelby, pictured, as CEO.

Until recently, Shelby was ARM’s vice president of marketing for the IoT, but he is also as an angel investor and has led wireless networking research and pioneer of the use of IP and web technology.

Speaking to New Electronics, Shelby said the Foundation’s aim is to ensure the long-term support and expansion of the educational programme, both in the UK and overseas.

“Spun off from the original partnership, which not only included the BBC, but also organisations like ARM, Microsoft, the IEE and Samsung, it was decided that the Foundation would take the micro:bit global and the role of CEO was just an incredible opportunity. I was certainly keen to take it on,” Shelby explains.

Born in the US, Shelby describes himself as a serial entrepreneur and a technologist.

“I was given a Commodore 64 by my parents at the age of children we’re targeting with the micro:bit. It totally transformed my life and we’re already seeing the micro:bit having a real impact as an educational tool.

“Bearing in mind I’ve only been in post for three months, I’m impressed by how the BBC has built on the legacy of the BBC Micro and, as a public service, has focused on helping people to become more educated about technology.

“In the 1980s, it was about basic computing. The BBC Micro was a game changer, helping to create and inspire a whole generation of entrepreneurs and technologists. Today, the BBC’s digital learning programme is about digital creativity and learning. The problems today are very different, but the micro:bit is looking to address them.”

According to Shelby, the BBC saw the need to create a physical device.

“Kids like physical things. They want to be able to play and interact with something and that is really important if you are trying to reach them. And, crucially, it’s been all about reaching non-technical kids. The micro:bit is easy to use and it’s not intimidating.

“Anyone other than the BBC would have made this far too technical and complicated and could have turned kids off. Instead, what we’ve seen from independent research is that the micro:bit is having a real impact in the way that children look at technology and see their future careers.”

Research has found that, amongst girls using the micro:bit, 39% now say they would consider ICT/computing science as an option, up from 23% previously. Meanwhile, amongst all students, 86% say the micro:bit made computer science more interesting, while 88% found coding was now less difficult than had previously been the case.

The impact of the micro:bit has been significant; users have visited the website more than 13million times, used the code simulator that is made available nearly 10m times and users have compiled code onto their devices nearly 2m times.

“Until recently, we haven’t been bringing technology to children in the right way,” Shelby contended. “I think we’re now seeing that change. In the past, we’ve over complicated things. I think what we’ve been able to achieve with the micro:bit is to make kids more comfortable with technology, using it as a tool and helping to empower them, as well as developers and the maker community.

“If only a small fraction of the children we reach end up working as programmers or technologists, that’s OK. What we want to see is more people feeling comfortable with using technology and understanding how it works, whatever walk of life they end up in.”

The Educational Foundation intends to take the micro:bit global and already more than 20 countries are looking to deploy it in educational programmes.

“Outside the UK, some of the early adopters include Iceland and the Netherlands. We will be looking to extend it across the rest of Europe this year and have plans to roll it out across North America and Asia in 2017,” sais Shelby. “But different countries will have different goals and we need to be aware of that and receptive to their differing educational needs.”

As well as providing an easy-to-use platform to teach STEM skills, micro:bit provides makers, developers and hobbyists with a flexible platform for prototyping.

“Innovation is a lot easier today than it was 10 to 15 years ago,” Shelby believes. “Development boards were hard to get hold of then and were expensive. With the rise of the Raspberry Pi and the Arduino, development boards are easier to get hold of and inexpensive. In the past, costs were prohibitive; today, that is changing.

“Technology is being democratised. People like to explore and innovate – that’s just human nature. The rise of the maker movement is really important, although it’s not our core market.”

The micro:bit Educational Foundation has many of the attributes of a start-up, Shelby suggests. “We have limited resources as we look to scale up. But what is interesting about the project is that it can be seen as a social project, empowering youngsters. That’s new for me and very exciting.

“By expanding the micro:bit’s functionality and extending the reach of this technology,” he concluded, “the Foundation aims to create a vibrant legacy of digital creativity.”

Zach Shelby

Chief executive of the micro:bit Foundation, Zach Shelby was previously VP of Marketing for the IoT at ARM. An angel investor, Shelby was cofounder of Sensinode, where he has acted as CEO and CTO prior to its acquisition by ARM in 2013. Before starting Sensinode, he led wireless networking research at the Centre for Wireless Communications and at the Technical Research Centre of Finland.