TECH TALK: A little knowledge can go a long way

Donovan Hoggan
By Donovan Hoggan
September 29th, 2010

 Everyone should know a little computer programming. I know that the most common response I’m going to get is that you don’t care about programming and you just want to use them. The value in having a basic understanding of how programs work is that it gives you a basic understanding of how computers work. … it just makes life easier.

When he was eight years old, I took my son to a workshop where he learned to program the Lego Mindstorm robots. Over and over again, the robot would wander off in a direction he didn’t want it to. Initially, his reaction was to say, “The robot’s not doing what I tell it to.” Soon, though, he realized that it was doing exactly what he told it to; he just wasn’t telling it to do the right thing.

I hear the same thing from adults all the time. “The computer lost my files”. What I invariably find is that the computer took your files and did exactly what you told it to, but you unintentionally told it to save them in the wrong place. Phone support is another opportunity to hear these. When I’m trying to get clients to go to a specific website, I often hear, “The computer won’t go to the website I’m telling it to.” In almost every case, I find that they’re putting the address into a search bar, or that they’re mistyping it. Again, the computer is doing exactly what they told it to; the problem is in the orders they’re giving the computer.

In programming, you learn how computers work: they are good at math, deeply stupid and completely obedient. This, I think, is the primary value in learning programming. There is also the benefit of knowing how to make computers do all sorts of interesting things.

For those who are interested, Scratch is a great place to start. It was developed at MIT to “make it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games music and art — and share your creations on the web.” It’s easy to learn, easy to use and has LOTS of support. And, best of all, it’s free.

The website is http://scratch.mit.edu. At the top of the first page is a button to download Scratch. It installs quickly and easily and takes your right into programming. The help menus within it are easy to navigate and seem to lead you right to the answer you’re looking for. From there, I’d encourage you to start exploring the website. There are over 1.3 million projects you can browse through. You can see the entertaining projects and, when you find one you like, get the programming code behind it so that you can re-write it to be what YOU want it to be.

There is also a “Support” page with excellent documentation on it. Resources include a Getting Started Guide, a reference guide, cheat sheets and videos. There are resources pointed at teachers and users, which is really helpful in ensuring that you get the wheat with a minimum of sorting through chaff. Individual support is available through a whole host of forums focusing on different aspects of programming with Scratch.

Scratch is a great project with lots of support that teaches very valuable things about how computers work. It’s pointed at kids, but offers anyone some great lessons that are also a lot of fun. So no more blaming the computer, OK?!?

Categories: Op/Ed


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