Making the rounds recently is the idea that computer programming skills are a “superpower,” especially in reference to teaching programming to kids. I don’t think this is far from the truth, with one important caveat: how it’s taught can make or break the entire learning experience. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is all the rage in education these days, but often overlooked is the fact that the real power of STEM is not in its results, but in its methods.
The ability to display a colorful web site, make a robot crawl across the floor, or have alien creatures chase each other around a smartphone screen can seem like high wizardry, but how one gets there is where the keys to the universe lie. There are any number of simple, drag & drop interfaces which can be used for website design, even for sites that include interactive features. Actual programming isn’t far behind. Kids can open up a visual editor, follow some instructions in a book, and end up with a working computer program or a functional robot in an afternoon. This is fantastic, especially to those of us who remember a time before personal computers, but that part alone will not bestow any superpowers.
The real magic comes when they explore, think outside the box, make plans, and try to build something from that blueprint. It happens when they fail, figure out what went wrong, and then make it work again. It happens when their creation breaks and they figure out how to repair it, or when they want a new feature and work out a way to add it on. It happens, perhaps most of all, when they discover the fatal flaw in their original design and go back to the drawing board with their hard-earned knowledge.
I cannot even begin to enumerate the areas of my life in which these skills have proven invaluable. Even setting aside the large segments of my career that have been directly involved with programming computers and related technology, I have been able to use my superpowers to make nearly every area of my life easier, more successful, and more enjoyable. Cooking dinner, planning vacations, buying houses, going fishing… things that would seem to have little to do with science or technology still benefit from the analytical thinking, problem-solving, figuring-out, and general stick-to-it-ness that comes along with a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of science & technology.
There are many tools which can help kids along this path, again with the proviso that how they are used can make all the difference. Simply following instructions to end up with a working whatever does nothing to exercise a child’s brain, at least the part we’re talking about here. Building and programming alone won’t do it. Allowing kids to be successful right out of the gate, while useful encouragement in small doses, teaches little. The words we need to be using are: brainstorming, designing, planning, analyzing, problem solving, experimenting, figuring out, breaking, fixing, and sometimes even starting over.
Last week I came across the Kickstarter campaign for Robot Turtles, a game that can be used to teach these superpowers to children as young as preschoolers. It’s not a new concept—the Logo turtle, in various incarnations, has been used to teach kids programming for over 40 years—but the idea of making it a physical, face-to-face interaction thing in the simple, familiar format of a board game is brilliant. Up front it says the game is for 3-8 year olds, but the game designer (a geek dad of twins) has developed an additional set of rules for older kids and adults too. This campaign wraps up in a couple of weeks, and the game may not be available after that, so if you’re interested in giving your kid superpowers, grab it now.