Teaching kids about computers...

Jules Richardson julesrichardsonuk at yahoo.co.uk
Thu Nov 29 11:09:53 CST 2007

Tony Duell wrote:
>> OK, I've managed to catch up with the thread now. Nice to see so many replies 
>> (I figured it'd generate a few, but I didn't expect this many :-)
>> A few individual points:
>> Re. BBC micro: will definitely have one over here at some point. It'd be nice 
>> to find a US-spec one, but I expect they're a little rare even in the US (I've 
> There's no real need to get a US-spec one. Any beeb other than th very 
> early ones will have an SMPSU, and there's a clear link to fit to the PSU 
> board to make it work on 115V mains. And I am sure you cna find soemthing 
> that will display one of the Beeb's video outputs (darn it, you've got 
> composited PAL video or serparate TTL-level RGB signals there). 

Oh, sure... it's just going to be a while before I can get one shipped here, 
and I wondered how practical it was to find a US-spec one on this side of the 
pond. Plus I'm sort of curious; the only one I saw in the UK had been reverted 
to UK spec, so it was basically a UK machine with all the extra RF shielding 
that the US machines had.

As I've stumbled across pretty much every other Acorn in existence at one time 
or another, it'd be nice to see a kosher US beeb :-)

You're right about the PSUs though - plus I think that for small SMPSUs (i.e. 
without lots of protection circuitry on the 'hot' side) there's some trick to 
making them work from 110V anyway (i.e. the '110V operation' stuff can be 
added after the fact if needed).

>> only ever seen one on the UK side). Main worry about the BBC though is that 
>> it's perhaps overkill for that initial learning step (i.e. focus on 
>> ROM/RAM/CPU and basic I/O) but is a fantastic machine once initial concepts 
>> have been grasped. (C64 perhaps falls into the same category as the BBC - it 
>> might be a bit too daunting initially simply because it can do so much more 
>> than the basic stuff)
> But if you think of soemthign simpler, then it's either hard to larn to 
> use (becuase yyou don't have a high-level language in ROM), or it's full 
> of kludges (I am thinkin of the ZX80 and Jupiter Ace here) that makes it 
> very hard for a beginner to understnad because the tricks are _not_ in 
> the introductory books.

Yep, it's definitely possible to go 'too simple'. Someone's suggestion of a 
VIC 20 was an interesting one. I only ever had one of those years ago, and 
confess to never doing anything with it, so know nothing about them other than 
a vague notion of them being a 'simplified C64'. I did wonder about an Acorn 
Atom, but - whilst less complex than the BBC but still kluge-free - they're 
not the most robust of machines (physically or electronically).

> Maybe a single-board computer based round one of those microcontrollers 
> with Tiny-BASIC (Intel 8052 and successors, for example). Hook up a video 
> terminal, and you can play about flashing LEDs on the I/O pins, etc. And 
> the circuit should be easy enough to understnad.

That could work. I'm not sure what the best approach is - whether to go the 
'simple computer and also try to tech some basic electronics first' route, or 
as you say there, try to combine the two initially.

>> I'm still not sure how to approach the low-level electronics side of things. 
>> Way back when in the UK, we had some electronics 'kits' at school which had 
>> basic logic gates mounted on a board and allowed kids to jump wires between 
>> them to make circuits (they contained a few LEDs, an LDR, some switches etc. 
>> too). Blue fronts, with the component legends drawn out in white (you couldn't 
>> actually see the ICs themselves). Did something similar exist in US schools? 
>> That sort of thing might be a good practical introduction...
> The problem is that many of the better educational kits are now 
> collector's items in their own right, and hard to find. There is a review 
> of some of the currently-available ones in the latest Elektor magazine, 
> BTW, some of thelm look tolerable with a plugblock type breatboard, real 
> loose components, and so on.
> Actually, wahat I'd doo is get a plugblock, a few simple TTL ICs, LEDs, 
> series resistors, etc, and teach it that way. Yes, you'll get blown 
> components, but they're cheap enough to replace. 

True. I'm not sure how the ones I remember from school worked - you didn't get 
to see the ICs, so I wonder if under the hood it was something a bit more 
complex to get around the blown component problem :-)  By the time I saw those 
things I'd already taught myself by taking the blown component route... but I 
could still appreciate at the time how they were good tutorial aids. (wish I 
knew who made them... I'm pretty sure it wasn't unilab, who were the people 
who normally did a lot of the school science kit)

>> I'd still like to find a 'simple' machine for him to play on - something on a 
>> par with a 48KB Spectrum; i.e. just ROM/RAM/CPU, keyboard, cassette storage, 
>> and TV output. Extra credit for having a 'common' CPU such as the Z80 or 6502 
> Tandy CoCo 1 or 2? It's essentially the Motorola application circuit for the 
> 6883 SAM, so it's straightforward. OK, the CPU is a 6809, which is not as 
> common as the others, but it _is_ a nice, easy, CPU to learn. 

Yep, I saw that other post before I saw yours. That's definitely looking like 
a good candidate, assuming the hardware doesn't prove to be too rare. I've 
never prodded a 6809 myself (just 6502 and Z80), but I guess I could stand to 
learn too :-)



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