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Wed, 11 Jan 2006
Why we took the kids off of Python

[ Julie posted briefly about this -- here's my side of the story ]

Shortly after Mind Camp in November, the girls were really getting interested in doing some more Python stuff (their interest had tailed off a bit, and our crazy summer meant that we didn't get to spend as much time on this as I wanted). The two older girls both wanted their shot at the computer, which made it harder for them to get a long session in front of the machine. Also, the Thinkpad X20 that they had been using developed some odd behavior where it would shut down instead of going to sleep, which meant that the kids were losing their work semi frequently, which was frustrating.

Up to this point, they had been working by clicking a Windows shortcut that opened Python in a DOS box. From there, they could type in the commands to start up turtle graphics and then just enter their commands at the interpreter prompt. The only computer "literacy" required was turning on the power, logging in, clicking a shortcut, and learning to deal with windows being selected or not. Now, they were going to have to learn about files.

The new regimen involved another Windows shortcut to pop up Notepad. The girls then had to learn to save a file, switch windows (on purpose, not by accident) to the Python interpreter window, reload the module, and look at the Tk output window. I found myself barraged by questions that had nothing to do with turtle geometry or programming. All the questions were about the environment -- forgetting to save a file, getting windows out of focus or behind each other, forgetting to reload the module, etc. I suppose they were learning computer "literacy", but it really reminded me as to how much stuff you need to know in order to do some simple programming. In a way, it was easier when I was doing AppleSoft Basic on the Apple II -- no separate editor, no windows to lose or have out of focus.

At Mind Camp, Todd Blanchard brought by a copy of "Squeak: Learn Programming with Robots", and the girls got excited by paging through it. It looked pretty good, and Squeak/Smalltalk certainly has the programming constructs that I want my kids to be exposed to straight off (at least if they are going to be programmers). Also, one of the original motivations for Smalltalk was for allowing kids to do programming and simulations, and that heritage seems to have carried through into the Squeak community. For a great/depressing look at some of the learning applications, you can check out this video from ETech 2003.

Some caveats. Using the "Robots" book involves using a customized Squeak image that has been tailored for educational purposes. Some might consider that "cheating", but I'm looking for the best environment for my kids to learn about essential computing concepts, so I don't really care if it's "cheating" or not. Also, using Squeak doesn't completely get you out of the file problem because each girl still needs her own image to avoid stomping on her sister's work. But the overhead is much lower. Michaela, who is 5, came to me and told me about all the stuff that she did in Squeak - creating multiple robots via direct manipulation and then issuing a stream of Smalltalk commands - that she was able to figure out on her own (with a little help from the book).

[22:41] | [education] | # | TB | F | G | 14 Comments | Other blogs commenting on this post
Have you looked at Guido van Robot or RUR-PLE ?  The first is a Python-like language; the second is based on Python itself.  Both have been used in school settings, although RUR-PLE, being much newer, has had less exposure.  And while RUR-PLE is not yet at version 1.0, it effectively includes all that is included in GvR.

Both are totally free!

Disclaimer: I am the creator of RUR-PLE.  After a short hiatus, I am working on it again and hope to release version 1.0 within a few months.  The following step will be to include an introduction to game making with Pygame, as a smooth transition from RUR-PLE.
Posted by André Roberge at Thu Jan 12 04:15:32 2006

Squeak is the way to go with the elementary school age students.

For Python I would have used PythonWin as the IDE on Windows instead of the DOS and Notepad environment.  PythonWin has a script editor with completions and an interactive window and requires a script be saved before you can run it.  There was an issue with running turtle graphics because the turtle opens a second TKinter mainloop, but I think this has been fixed.

StarLogo is a nice simulation environment.  It has multiple turtles and a cellular background so you can do cellular automation.  The download comes with lots of examples from traffic and infection simulations to a Frogger game.  Middle school students enjoyed hacking Frogger.  StarLogo is used to teach professionals simulation techniques at the Santa Fe Institute using the Adventures in Modeling book.  Logo is basically Lisp without parenthesis.  I would like to make a Python version of StarLogo.
Posted by Jeff Sandys at Thu Jan 12 12:15:30 2006

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