Key Hero and the Pooping Turtle Story

My friend Christopher Cotton (who played in The Gameshelf's review of Werewolf) has lately been teaching programming to kids, as part of the Young Scholars Institute in Tennessee's Franklin School District. They're using Java and Processing, the latter a new-hotness language I hadn't heard of before this year, but now I find myself stumbling across references to it all the time.

Here's a video of Christopher running and narrating one 11-year-old student's game, a Guitar Hero clone she wrote with Processing in 90 minutes.

I am immensely proud of Christopher and his students. He's doing what I've wanted to do for years, and what I think there should be a lot more of. There is no reason except for institutional timidity that programming isn't taught as a basic course in every school in this country, and that's a crying shame.

Ten years ago, before I became Yet Another Software Engineer, I spent a year "teaching computer" at an elementary school in Hermon, Maine. I chose to subvert the curriculum (how to type and use Microsoft Word, mostly) by trying to teach computer science concepts instead. I will never forget the moment when one student, in the classroom of second-graders struggling over a three-line Logo program I had them try to type in and execute, Finally Got It. "My turtle pooped!" he cried, and everyone crowded around to witness as his Logo-turtle successfully drew a straight line. Within minutes, not only was every kid's turtle also pooping, but they discovered that changing the number changed the line's length, a fact they started excitedly telling each other about with no prompting from me. I spent the remainder of the period suggesting other things they could try, with the kids spreading each bit of new programming knowledge amongst themselves. I have never had an experience quite like this in my life since.

Programming exercises and rewards logical thinking and problem-solving in a way that no xeroxed sheet of math problems can. Any kid capable of doing the latter should also be exposed to the former. As we enter an increasingly ludocentric culture, I'm hopeful to see technologies like Processing, and people like Christopher, allowing children to develop their minds and creative powers through game-making. I just wish that it stretched beyond a few lucky kids who happen to live in the right places.

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2 Responses to Key Hero and the Pooping Turtle Story

  1. Jens Alfke says:

    Processing's being used for some crazy, awesome stuff. The 3D graphics and animations that Robert "flight404" Hodgin makes are just mind-blowing.

    I haven't used Processing myself, but I like NodeBox, which is a similar environment that uses Python as its language (instead of a Java derivative.) Its API isn't quite as powerful, but I much prefer Python to Java, especially for quick-n-dirty stuff where niceties like type-checking just get in the way. (NodeBox is also Mac-only, though I think some people are working on a Windows port.)

  2. Sharon says:

    Goodness, yes---I was fortunate enough to have access to an Apple IIe at (public) school when I was ten. A group of us figured out gleefully how to cover a black screen in green Logo lines, kaleidoscope-fashion, and then how to use pen up and pen down to draw simple polygons. I really wish that that short segment of 1985 had become a commonplace experience for kids by now....

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