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Pimp My Legos: Teaching Kids to Program

Uh-oh -- the SXSW proposal I rashly cooked up last summer has been accepted, and now I have to do something about it.

Fellow geek parent Chris Hyams and I were musing about our early programming experiences and wondering how best to give a similar opportunity to our computer-mad daughters. We're not alone in the impression that experiencing computers solely through GUI applications results in a more limited relationship with technology than if one also has the experience of writing code in a procedural language, and furthermore that today's immersive computing environments give kids less opportunity to make the step up from user to programmer than the more constrained computing environments we started out with. Call it In the Beginning was the Command Line meets Why Johnny Can't Code. Or, carrying a deck of punch cards barefoot through the snow builds character.

One thing led to another and we submitted the following proposal to SXSW:

Pimp My Legos: Teaching Kids to Program

Children famously pick up consumer technology faster than grownups, but what about real programming? Geek parents and educators discuss and demo the best platforms for fostering skillz in kidz, from LOGO turtle programming to Lego Mindstorms, from BASIC to HTML, Flash, Perl and Ruby.

It's four busy months later and we find ourselves having to put our PowerPoints where our mouths are. In addition to the experiments we are planning on our own captive guinea pigs, we're looking for two or three co-panelists in the Austin area with extensive experience teaching programming to (say) 16-and-under kids. Despite the reference to Legos in the title, we want the focus of the panel to be about software, not just killer robots (although we certainly hope to have a Mindstorms person on board). We have some sources of panelists in mind, but we hope word of mouth will provide us with more. Suggestions?

P.S.: Despite the complaint in the Salon piece that it's hard to find a BASIC interpreter these days, it looks like Chipmunk BASIC will do the trick for MacOS. Now if I can just dig up my old stash of Creative Computings, we'll have a rousing session of Hunt the Wumpus...

Update: Alas, other obligations have interfered and I've had to withdraw the panel proposal. It's possible that Chris may pull it out of the fire, but at this point it looks like it's canceled. The idea seemed to go over well -- if you're looking for a good topic idea for 2008, feel free to steal this one!

kids 2006.11.13 link


I crossposted this at IAlog.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2006.11.13
Another interesting resource is LogoWiki, which allows users to execute Logo code on the pages.

McChris [chris cxe infobong punkto com] • 2006.11.13
Try Marianna Ricketson-Husain. She is the Campus Technology Coordinator at West Ridge Middle School and runs Camp Wired - a summer program giving kids in middle school kids and younger some exposure to programming. Last summer, the kids could choose from classes on RPG Maker, Flash, Photoshop, Adobe Premiere Elements, StageCast, HTML, or GameMaker.

Let me know if I can be of further assistance.

Jeff Beckham [jeff cxe jeffbeckham punkto com] • 2006.11.13
This is great! I wish there had been more like this when I was a kid. Seems like you had to already be a geek in those days, and if you had the leanings but not the outlet, you just didn't have many options.

But my s.o., who's quite a bit younger than I am, had the great experience of Robot Odyssey when he was a kid (and something else, but I don't know what it was called). Basically, through Robot Odyssey he learned digital circuit programming. I've asked him to chime in, because he may have some ideas for you.

In the meantime, I'm ready to go back to school and study information. Cos working in risk management has worn out its welcome almost three years later!

ataraxy [ataraxy cxe graduallydisappear punkto com] • 2006.11.14
Yes, Robot Odyssey, which taught me digital logic flow and how to build circuits - a game I loved so much that when my 'Level 4 / 5' floppy went bad as a kid, I came back and finished it on an apple ][ emulator (on a PC) when in college. I had notebooks full of circuit designs... just not the right ones to pass my classes at the time. ;)

I remember that my sister originally got 'Gertrude's Secrets', which taught shapes and colors, and then we both graduated up to Rocky's Boots, but Robot Odyssey was the best of these games, and the most complicated.

Also 'Omega' by Stuart Marks, a bit later - where you got to program a tank with AI and send it into the arena to do battle with other tanks. By winning, you could get upgrades to weapons, armor, and CPU. You could program whole teams of tanks and send them out to work together, just like the Robot Odyssey bots had to work together to solve puzzles.

Thom Brooks • 2006.11.14
Prentiss, here's your Creative Computing:

opened up to the Hunt the Wumpus page. My personal childhood favorite was the text version of Lunar Lander, here at

which qualifies as "simulation".

Edward Vielmetti [edward punkto vielmetti cxe gmail punkto com] • 2006.11.15
My step-father is a computer science teacher at Marble Falls High School for the last 16 years. Back in the day it was Pascal. Scheme as well. Not sure what he teaches kids now.

As a bonus, he is friends with a someone who competes in the Lego robotics challenges (rather well too). I'll forward this blog to him to see if he is interested.

Trevor [trevor punkto weede cxe gmail punkto com] • 2006.11.17
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