Tuesday, October 09, 2012

You Can't Count on Anything

One would hope I really am not old enough to be thinking "kids today" but in my gig the chances of it are high and only seem to get higher each passing year. The latest example turned out to be about computer programming.

I got my first introduction to computer programming when I was in 6th grade. I was in a "special math" class, which sounds like it ought to be remedial but was just the opposite. As part of that course we were introduced to programming in BASIC on TRS-80 Model 1 computers. They had a whopping 16K of memory and stored their programs on cassette tape. My recollection is that the screen had maybe 64 pixels across (might have been less) and when we needed hardcopy output we used an electro-static printer than printed on metallic paper that looked like register receipts.

I used Model 1's and then Model 3's (somehow we missed the Model 2 - it was an office model I think). Before I got to high school I had a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer. The CoCo had "high resolution" graphics: 256 pixels across. I moved up from thermal paper to tractor feed bond and ditched the tape drive for a 5.25" floppy disc drive. By this time we'd started to see Apple 2 computers and IBM PCs - both of which were really the death knell for the TRS 80.

The thing that was most different about these machines from computers we get now is that their primary purpose was to be programmed. They booted up in basic and then you told them to do things. There was commercially available software, mostly games, but a user was just as likely to write their own procedures as to buy something. I even had at least two "pocket computers" which were more accurately programmable calculators that also ran BASIC.

To this day I still have habits learned on those Tandy machines. Programming in BASIC the computers had this function where if you pressed backspace with the shift key it would erase the whole line. I still find myself making for damn sure to have my finger off the shift key before I press backspace. I lost way too much code to that particular feature over the years to unlearn it now.

Somewhere along the way the introductory programming language went from BASIC to a graphic based language LOGO. I want to say LOGO had a "turtle" that made patterns on the screen based on programming. Logo was a gateway to PASCAL. When I was in college I took 15-111 Computer Programming and in that course we used PASCAL.

And then I became a theatre student and that was the end of my programming experience. I got off the road just before C++. I think since it made me more confident writing spreadsheet macros or putzing around with HTML, but I haven't done any real programming in a very long time.

Since I had computer programming in junior high, high school, and college; and since I went to school so long ago I guess I just figured that people coming through our program would have had even more computer experience than I did.

And maybe they did. They've probably had computers in their homes as long as they can remember and in all likelihood have had computers in their classrooms since grade school. But... it doesn't seem as if anytime along the way they have had to learn to program. It makes sense. Even when I was in college computers stopped booting up in BASIC and become more creatures of purchased software than custom programming.

Why does this come up now? The last two years I've included an ARDUINO unit in my Technical Direction 3 class. ARDUINO is an open source embedded electronics platform. About half of the work here is electronics craft (and whether these kids had "150 in 1 Electronics Kits" in their past would make for another post) and half of the work is coding, coding with all of the inherent nuances of syntax and structures of any other programming language.

In class the other day we were blazing through some introduction to ARDUINO programming and we kept having to go backward and suddenly it became clear that not one student in class had ever had computer programming anytime in their prior education.

I don't often find myself thinking "what are they teaching kids these days?" Couldn't help myself.

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