The Great American Teach-In

I talked to a 5th grade class about programming as part of “The Great American Teach-In” this month. It was a very rewarding (but strangely stressful) experience. Hopefully the kids in the class have a better idea what programmers do on a daily basis. Regardless, I have a much better appreciation for their teachers.

I covered three topics during my talk:

What is Programming?

I started with a simple question: “what is programming?”. 10 year olds have an interesting perspective on this question. It mostly involves Minecraft.

My simple explanation is that “programming is communicating with machines and people using a very specific type of language”. These “machines” include almost everything in our modern world: computers, robots, embedded devices, wearables, cars, and countless other things. The kids were not surprised by the ubiquity of computing devices or the range of companies that employ programmers. Technology has already been fully integrated into their young lives.

Program the Programmer Exercise

As a fun exercise, I let the kids “program” me using the following set of commands printed on flashcards:

  • Turn Left (x6)
  • Turn Right (x6)
  • Move Forward (x8)
  • Jump Up (x2)
  • Robot Sounds (x2)

I picked 8 random kids, distributed 3 cards to each, and asked them to discard 2 cards. This left them with 8 cards to assemble into a “program” which I would “execute”. The kids enjoyed the 8 card version so much that I let the second group program me with all 24 cards. The mischievous team actually managed to “program” me into their classroom’s bathroom. It was great fun for all.

Getting Kids into Programming

The kids I talked to are just the right age to begin learning about programming. In fact, several of them already have. They are using tools like Scratch, Hackety Hack, the Raspberry Pi, and even board games like Robot Turtles to make programming fun and accessible.

I vividly remember programming turtles in LOGO and fiddling with BASIC programs at their age and am excited to provide these types of experience to other young learners. I was pleased to learn that a few of the kids in the classroom had already participated in the Hour of Code. I hope to be able to help out with the event that the school has scheduled for later this year.

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