Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Thoughts on Teaching Computer Programming

First, let me say that I firmly believe that anyone can learn to write code. If a person is alive, upright, and able to do things like get dressed in the morning or feed themselves they have the skills - namely problem solving and the ability to formulate and then follow steps in an orderly fashion. That being said, I often struggle with helping newbies connect the "real life" skills to the world of programming. I started learning programming more than 30 years ago - I have trouble understanding the problems that new programmers have.

I often think on this problem and I am constantly trying new approaches to help students learn how to approach programming tasks. One such effort is to point out to students that the computer must go through exactly the same steps that they do, just that the steps are smaller.

One example I use is to sum a column of numbers. Usually when I ask students how to perform the task I get answers like, "Just add up the numbers!" Well, yes, but is that the way you really do it? You can look at a column of numbers and instantly know the sum? Or do you perhaps do some other steps that you're taking for granted?

This morning I had a bit of an epiphany on the topic while taking a shower (where many of my best epiphanies happen). Earlier in the quarter we had an exercise where I asked students to write instruction steps for the new "Lunch-A-Matic 2000 Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Making Robot" keeping in mind that a robot ONLY knows how to do what you tell it. When all the students had handed in their instructions I pulled out bread, a knife, peanut butter and jelly and we attempted to make a sandwich based on student instructions. The key word is "attempted." Only 1 student remembered to take the twist-tie off the bread container :).

The epiphany this morning was in the realization that humans think in terms of functions. To put it another way, if you were to try to teach a 6 year old child how to make a PB & J sandwich when they had never been allowed in the kitchen before, you would have to say every small step:

  • Walk to the cupboard
  • Open the cupboard
  • Look inside the cupboard
  • Choose bread type
  • Reach dominant hand into the cupboard
  • Grasp the bread 
  • Remove bread from the cupboard
  • Close the cupboard
  • Walk to the counter


But after making a few PB & J sandwiches, it is possible to tell that same child "Go make a PB & J sandwich" without guiding them through all of the steps. In other words, the set of steps have become a function call!

The same type of thing can be seen with driving. When we first learn how to drive, it looks and feels like an insurmountable task with all the details one must keep in mind. But as we get experience driving becomes automatic and we don't really think about all the steps and details that go into the activity. "Driving" to work or to the store becomes a parameterized function call.

Armed with this analogy, it looks like my task as a professor of Computer Science is to help students look inside those functions and remember all the little steps.

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