The Hour of Code is a global initiative intended to demystify code (ie computer programming) and show that anybody can learn the basics. The idea is to get kids (or anyone, really) to do at least one hour of coding, in a fun and relaxed way that many won’t even recognise as coding. This provides them with an introduction to computer science and hopefully lay the foundation of a skill that can be tremendously useful in years to come.
Last week, the Science Centre set up a few computers in one of our galleries and invited everyone to come and try their hand at coding. The computers ran things like Lightbot, Blockly Games and Scratch, which introduce programming concepts – sequential instructions, procedures, loops, conditionals and the like – as games and very basic applications.
But you didn’t even have to touch a computer, as there were also some code related paper-based activities, like ‘Pixels to Pictures’, which involved shading grid cells based on coded instructions to arrive at a picture, or the ‘Not-So-Secret Cipher’ for encoding and decoding messages.
All these activities were facilitated by volunteers from among the Science Centre staff and beyond. And then there were more volunteers who were showcasing some of their personal projects, from programs to robots to networked series of cameras and other maker projects. I joined the event on two afternoons to showcase some of my simulations (mostly my Coriolis Fountain), and to share how being able to whip up such little programmes helped me understand complex phenomena.
I had a few very interesting conversations with some of the parents. Many of them were not just keen to get their kids exposed to programming, they were also very interested themselves. I was asked a number of times how I would recommend they get started if they wanted to learn programming, as they could see how useful a skill that is. Some even realised that a programmer’s way of thinking can help in everyday problem-solving and logical thinking as well, which I absolutely agree with.
My recommendation for those wanting to pick up programming is to have a go at some of the online courses on Khan Academy or W3Schools. I have been using Processing for the last few years, which is simple to use and great for graphics.
As an illustration of how quickly one can whip up a little program (or sketch, as they are aptly called in Processing) that does something interesting, I put together this app I call ‘catch and drag me if you can’ while in the gallery. It has less than thirty lines of code and probably took me, with some tweaking and all, about an hour to put together.