Idea: science packs for schools?

Paul Boddie paul at boddie.org.uk
Sat Nov 26 00:21:11 UTC 2016


On Friday 25. November 2016 22.49.13 Fran├žois Revol wrote:
> On 25/11/2016 22:42, Paul Sutton wrote:
> > Further to all this
> > 
> > https://projects.drogon.net/lmc/
> > 
> > little man computer, is a simulator i think for assembly language
> > teaching.
> 
> Yet another option is to dig out old computers like Apple II, ORIC, ...

They actually have a room of BBC Micros at Bletchley Park for schoolchildren 
to use, showing them what computing used to be about and confronting them with 
things like BASIC and maybe even assembly language (although I doubt that they 
really have time for BASIC tuition let alone assembly language).

One problem here is that the hardware can fail, especially given its age, but 
also because there are certain kinds of capacitors that tend to "pop" (which 
means that the room of BBC Micros needed volunteers to "re-cap" the machines 
before they could be rolled out), those nasty coin cells and other 
rechargeables that corrode and destroy the PCBs, dodgy power supplies, and 
increasingly rare proprietary ICs (SID, ULA) that fail and cannot be replaced.

> And there are FLOSS tools now to use them, for ex. for ORIC:
> http://osdk.defence-force.org/
> http://miniserve.defence-force.org/
> and a Free Software OS that runs on C64, Apple II and others, Contiki :
> https://www.c64-wiki.com/index.php/Contiki
> 
> And those are all using a 6502, we can now use a larger version to
> explain how it worked:
> http://hackaday.com/2016/05/24/how-the-dis-integrated-6502-came-to-be/

It is actually possible to do new machines based on such CPUs because they are 
still in production. I guess that was originally the vague idea behind the 
Raspberry Pi - the instigator prototyped it using Atmel AVRs (similar to the 
ones used in the Arduino), I think - and the users would have had a "bare 
metal" experience similar to the microcomputers of old. However, the project 
picked up that Broadcom SoC and the rest is history.

There are other "microcomputer" or "retrocomputer" projects such as ELLO 2M:

https://www.crowdsupply.com/yellow-beak-computer/ello-2m

These employ relatively small amounts of memory and microcontrollers, but 
that's enough to run low-level code or some form of BASIC. Interestingly, and 
a reminder to everyone about the value of Free Software, that particular 
project experienced problems using a proprietary BASIC and an apparently 
uncooperative developer which could have had serious consequences for the 
fulfilment of the rewards of the crowdfunding campaign in question:

https://www.crowdsupply.com/yellow-beak-computer/ello-2m/updates/2399

(You have to read between the lines, but I think the video in the previous 
update provides more details.)

But anyway, something like PIC32 (which is a MIPS variant) or one of the ARM 
microcontrollers would provide a microcomputer experience and yet offer 
workstation capabilities for those interested in more advanced concepts. (We 
have to encourage ambition in the next generation, after all.)

What is most important, however, is that the software is Free Software - no 
short-cuts for the convenience of vendors - and that the materials are Free 
Content and coherent. Despite what was promised about the Raspberry Pi with 
regard to revolutions in the computing curriculum, my understanding is that 
not very much happened. And it's worth watching what happens with the 
Micro:Bit (or however it is spelled) to see whether the technology is deployed 
in a coherent way, whether it sustains interest, and whether it cultivates a 
community to support it.

Paul



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