[Edu-sig] How do kids these days get started in programming?

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Mon Apr 20 18:02:03 CEST 2009

On Mon, Apr 20, 2009 at 8:21 AM, Maria Droujkova <droujkova at gmail.com> wrote:

<< SNIP >>

> That's why I am looking for kid-friendly AND large communities of
> practice first and foremost for any educational endeavors...
> --
> Cheers,
> MariaD

There's the old chicken versus egg problem when it comes to "large communities".

Funny story:  Silicon Valley schmoozer comes to one of our Pioneer
Place venture capital conventions and hears all this talk about
"bootstrapping", complains that's not kosher where she comes from,
sounds like we're poor, rubbing two sticks together, out in the cold,
whereas in the Valley (plus Austin has Hills) it's better to sound
like you *already have* tons of money, as that's what'll work for ya
out of the box, once you do.  What no one explained to this interloper
is "bootstrap" has a perfectly objective meaning in engineering that
actually applies in startup scenarios.  You want just enough code in
memory to serve as a foothold for some larger beast, which then climbs
to the next rung and so on.  Before you know it, you've dealing with
IBM or one of those (i.e. some big kahuna that started in a modest
little shop or garage say on Hawthorne, aka Asylum Ave. (e.g. the ESI
story, which I like to tell, as we're still in it in some ways, thanks
to Doug Strain's connections to the Linus Pauling venture, not to
mention local Friends)).

In any case, remember that teachers, not just students, like that
feeling of being in a small pilot or government study, elite guinea
pigs, something to brag about, kind of like TAG.  That's where I like
talking about the Winterhaven Experiment (see slides) where Silicon
Forest executives had total control of our "geek Hogwarts", were able
to boot Google Earth the first day, go from there to Kml to Xml to GIS
more generally, as a set of rich data structures on a polyhedron
(planet Earth), ergo we're talking geography (GIS) not just geometry,
etc.  Bridging geometry and geography is a fond goal of ours.  How
else to do "place based education" in the age of dodecacams.
Winterhaven already has the Oaks Bottom connection i.e. kids to
ecology around that ecosystem, file results over time.  Using Python
to generate Tufte style visualizations about the real world is our
idea of a good time.  We want worldly geeks, not head in the sand

The kids loved it, got to "fly over" their own school, other locations.

Basically, once you've tasted math on a real computer in a real
programming language, you won't willingly retreat to the bad old days,
when we only shared calculators.  That would come across of
penalizing, taking away toys, dumbing it down, deprivation, probably
cause riots.  In part that's why some schools are reluctant to take
the leap, because they're in cahoots with the others in not making the
others look bad (as in "non-viable").  Fortunately, in this climate of
innovation thanks to a deteriorating economy, the government itself
suffers from no such compunctions and is happy to explore new models
of charter school build around FOSS, offering merit pay, and making
their debut in Alaska and places.  We'll even fly the teachers down to
Portland for training why not.  Alaska Airlines could use the
business.  We shall see.

Having followed this thread since the 1980s (pre Python) from a
vantage point in McGraw-Hill, other places, I'm thinking Logo
exhausted itself by being not general purpose enough.  As a stepping
stone to LISP and Scheme, it kind of worked, at places like MIT.  But
in the hands of inexperienced teachers, it languished and died.
BASIC, on the other hand, was always butt ugly and an insecure basis
for any large business.  Fortunately, Microsoft is rescuing itself the
CLR and the dot NET platform, which makes VB just one more client
language, and not an especially important one (good riddance!).  Now
that MIT is switching to Python, and now that we have a strong turtle
module right out of the box, thanks to Gregor, we at least have no
credibility problems when it comes to picking up where the 1980s left
off.  But that still puts us 30 years behind, which is a lot of
catching up to do.

Back to Scott's remarks about how "IBM and Microsoft would already be
doing this if it made any sense" (paraphrase), we hear the same thing
from students about the spatial geometry I'm doing with Python.  But
if you've followed the story closely (e.g. been looking over my
shoulder) you know we have almost no competition and no resistance
from higher math.  Wolfram's cellular automata haven't lost their
relevance and John Zelle's graphics.py makes doing his kind of science
really a piece of cake, even in Tk (still an included battery in 3.x,
as IDLE lives on, complete with easy widgets -- John is wise to
exploit that I think).  Once you move off a flat surface and want to
fill space, you're plop into 'The Book of Numbers' by Conway and Guy,
and that's right where we pick it up with the Python, doing "gnomon
studies" around the figurate and polyhedral numbers.  Kids are writing
generators in the first 30 minutes in some scenarios, as this is just
like functions in algebra class, but with state preserved between
calls.  They notice the quality of their cafeteria conversation
suddenly skyrockets as they're sounding more and more like geeks every
day.  That's one step closer to being like Selena & Audrey, our young
OS Bridge organizers, into PostgreSQL and Rails respectively, or like
Tim Bauman, one of my proteges, knows all kinds of cool stuff.  Role
models within age range, not some 50 year old like me, is what they're
looking for.  In the Python community that's no problem.  This CPP
kids from Iceland must be about 17?  I played xBox guitar with 'em,
after knocking back a few, as they wanted proof that 50 year olds
still have hand-eye coordination.  I think I did well enough by our
species to prove we still do.


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