My wife is teaching Project Lead The Way to 6 – 8 grades in a public zoo, opps, school. If you are not familiar with PLTW it is a canned teaching program for hands-on STEM. The kids do some engineering, some robotics, and a Medical Investigations (like a CSI) biology class. Very hands-on classes, all labs with very little sit and listen to the teacher type stuff. In her robotics class she has six kids that are very accelerated and 21 that are not. Last night she asked me if I knew anything she could give the accelerated six that would not require her to hold their hand, something they could work on independently. (My wife knows only the programming she learned in a 5 day PLTW seminar on RobotC, i.e. zip. She is a fast learner and is really into building stuff, be it robots or wood projects or mouse trap race cars. She loves teaching these courses but due to the fact the school has seen it necessary to cram 27 to 30 kids in these courses she has no time to do anything but classroom management and teach a little.) Whatever I come up with cannot require something be installed on her classroom laptops (she does not have admin privileges on them (stupid) and tech support is a two to three week response time (another stupid for a course requiring lots of laptops being used a lot), has to have its own tutorial and has to be somewhat interesting to 8th graders. The install thing killed Kodu, Small Basic and GameMaker. The fact her laptops are low end killed Project Spark. The fact that CodeHS.com’s Karel the Dog is not something I would give smart 8th graders and requires some initial instruction killed that idea. So I am sitting there last night on the couch with the laptop thinking and going through the list of coding environments that I know. Then it hit me. Alfred Thompson. No, he did not hit me, we are pretty much on opposite sides of the country, but what he has been working with, TouchDevelop, hit me. It is web based so no install. It has “Getting Started” on the Google search which leads to “first steps with turtle” tutorials. It also leads to some fun stuff that can actually go on to something useful for the kids. If the kids are independent enough and smart enough they should be able to go it on their own.
Of course all this wild digging last night got me thinking. How easy is some of this “beginning programming” stuff to get started with? How easy is it to find the tutorials, how easy is the IDE for a beginner and how much outside help (teacher or knowledgeable parent) is really required? It would be great if someone in my wife’s situation could just say to a kid or parent “go here and everything will connect”. As the high school CS teacher I actually get this request fairly frequently; “where can my child learn some programming on-line?” Usually by elementary school parents. So in the next few weeks I am going to do some reviews of beginner (ages 8 through 13ish) programming software. I will be particularly looking at how standalone the software is and how easy it is to get started programming with the software. Things like ease of installation (if required), quality of the tutorials and how good the website is at pointing beginners (kids) in getting the software up and running. I also want to look at the fun factor or “how deeply is the kid going to get hooked on thinking and programming if they play with this?”
The software I can think of looking at are:
Hopefully I will get some suggestions from my readers as to other software to look at. I will also probably remember software I have forgotten about as I go.