Saturday, December 15, 2007

Just Ask Alice

Many of you are starting to spend more time at home for the holidays. (I am, but it's because I'm still sick and I can honestly say that I would even rather be working on a Saturday night than feel sick.) In any case, for many of you, your kids are home for the holidays, as well.

This is the perfect opportunity to teach them about programming. Yes, you read that right. Yank them away from the television or whatever new fangled toy that they're selling this year, settle down and start working on some animation. If you don't, they are liable to go into finance or go to law school. Surely you don't want that. Actually, starting to strengthen analytical skills at an early age should help in whatever career they choose, but you should still remain optimistic.

Last month, Dr. Susan Rodger gave a talk to the Durham FM Association regarding the Alice Programming Language, which was developed by Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon. Pausch recently gave an inspirational "Last Lecture" after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Alice is a tool for creating animation using "drag and drop" code and 3D object libraries to teach fundamental coding concepts, such as loops, classes, functions and arrays. It's pretty cute. It's currently being used in one of the Duke computer science courses for non-majors, but it's clearly even more appropriate for K-12 education and they are encouraging its adoption at that level.

The programming tool reminded me vaguely of the software that comes with Lego Mindstorms, which is another excellent method for learning fundamental programming concepts.

The best thing is that Alice is free, so anyone can try it out on their own. Dr. Rodger also has additional materials available.

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