Monday, 12 May 2014

An interesting way to get children into programming

Yes, you can even use the environment to write
the kind of games we used to knock up in the old days
We keep hearing how not enough children get the basics of programming. I did my first programming towards the end of secondary school. We didn't have a computer at the school, so we would punch cards (by hand, a character at a time - we didn't have the card punching 'typewriters' we had at university), pop them in the post so they could travel down from Manchester to London where they were put through either University College or Imperial College's magnificent machine, then we would get a printout back in the post one to two weeks later saying we'd made a punching error. It taught you to be precise.

Now, of course, computers are everywhere, but surprisingly few children get a feel for programming them. Here's one possible way around it - http://www.robotbasic.org - what these guys do is to provide an environment where you can use a variant of BASIC to program a simulated robot. You can use the same code to control real robots if you've the money for the hardware, but the great thing about this for cash strapped schools is that the students can have the thrill of bringing something to life with their programming without any financial outlay. I must admit I haven't had time to give it a go, so I don't know how good it is - the website does look more functional than flashy, but that might be a good thing under the circumstances - but in concept at least it's great.

You might say 'but no one uses BASIC any more, this is a waste of time and effort,' but that misses the point. It gets young people into the mindset of programming, to get a feel for the idea that you can control a computer or a device any way you like, rather than running existing programs, and that surely is good. As for the language itself, I have no problems there. When I was at BA, we often recruited programmers who hadn't done a computer science course, because there was always so much for the compsci students to unlearn because the academic approach to programming was so different to the real world. It's probably a good thing these young programmers aren't learning bad habits in a 'real' language, but rather getting a feel for what it's all about that will stand them in good stead if they ever take it further.

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