Last night I went out to get some dinner and as I sat in the drive-through waiting for the unbridled joy that is Cain’s chicken I listened to the radio. WOSU’s All Sides had a piece about child poverty and mentoring. It was interesting and thought provoking, one of the guests said something that rang true and made me think. (Paraphrasing because the audio is currently unavailable) He started to realize that the kids were excited to have him come talk to the class every week, not because they were interested in his stories about the Post Office, but because they wanted to know that someone cared about them. It was a powerful thing to remember, that children need to know that someone cares for them, and that not all children are that lucky.
In writing this blog one of my favorite memories is doing the research to write the teaching post. It reminded me of the heady days of my youth spending hours inside of the amazingly good QBasic help file trying to get something to work, stumbling and bumbling, put beaming with pride and a giddy happiness when I finally got the program to work. These days the amount of programming languages geared towards teaching have only expanded, and systems like Alice put LOGO’s turtle graphics to shame (although I still love that LISP-laden turtle).
This started the old gears turning in my head, and although this thought is pre-pre-alpha, I thought I would get some feedback and just jot down what I’m thinking. What if there were an after school program for elementary school aged children where IT professionals donated their time and talent to helping kids learn how to program. Children need mentoring, the IT community has a wealth of talented and caring people, let’s put these two things together and see if we can do some good. The logistics of this are a little daunting, but I want to lay out the reasons why now is the right time for just such a program.
Programming is the new literacy. Don’t believe me, here is an article entitled Programming is the new literacy. As we move forward into an increasingly wired future, programming, scripting, mark-up, are going to become skills that are normal to have. Children are already more “plugged-in” then ever before, the benefits of understanding the machine they’ve been using since they were in diapers is apparent. As the information economy continues its march into the 21st century, people will need these skills. From a simple formula in an Excel Spreadsheet to whipping up a ruby script to do batch processing, these will become the differentiators of tomorrow, helping people achieve.
Hardware has never been more accessible. Moore’s Law is a thing of beauty, I just bought a more than capable HP refurb for $150 to act as a media server. OLPC has shown that putting affordable computers into children’s hands is possible, and it looks more and more likely that school districts in the Industrialized Nations will be following suit in the next decade or so. Companies routinely donate their old computers which means that if $150 is too much (which it is for a lot of low income families) then you can get a donated computer free. Children can also access computers at libraries and schools for free.
Software has never been more accessible. The number of languages specifically targeting teaching has only been growing. If you haven’t already, go read the teaching post, it is a round-up of just a handful of the neat and nifty software meant to help kids learn to program. The learning curve has never been gentler, you can go from a learning language like Hackity Hack (which is based off of Ruby) to the full Ruby language fairly easily, and from there you can explore the whole world of Ruby development from Rails to Unicorn and back again.
Programming is about more than computers. Although the immediate goal of learning to program is to instruct a computer in how to perform a given task, the side benefits are immense. Programming teaches children a structured way to solve problems, learning about control structures teaches the ideas of Boolean Logic, writing formulae increases and reinforces the understanding of mathematics. Programming is also empowering, being able to sit down at a keyboard with nothing more than your wits and a good idea and turn it into something real is an amazing feeling for a child. Programs let children learn and explore, make mistakes and figure out how to solve them, with gentle encouragement and careful guidance a child can turn their ideas into reality, and that’s a powerful lesson.
Where to go from here? I’m not exactly sure, the logistics of setting something like this up are a little out of my league. For right now this is just a good idea, I’m at step 3 of the idea ladder. Leave a comment, let me know what you think, if you are a parent, would this kind of program interest you? If you are an IT professional, would you volunteer at such an organization? If you are a business owner, would you support such an organization? If you are a child, would you like to learn to program?
I’m not sure where this idea will go from here, but I’m excited to find out.