BASIC Magic: Programming and Student Wonderment
I loathed math in elementary school.
Not because it was too difficult, but I simply could not find it interesting, and that did not jive well with my already short attention span.
For some reason, this did not sit well with my grandfather — the guy I saw as the most interesting man in the world. A perpetual tinkerer and lover of gadgets, he jumped on the computing wave in the early 1980’s and learned the art of programming, initially to assist him with modifying chipsets on other electronics, further going down the tinkerer rabbit hole. One day, he had the idea to write some interactive software for me, hoping to shift my interest in math.
I’ll never forget sitting down at his desk, staring at the beige monitor, with glowing green text on a black background:
Hello, what is your name?
Good afternoon, Josh. Here’s a problem: what is the answer to 12 x 12?
My mind was blown. I couldn’t care less about the math problem, but he used this machine to create, from scratch, something completely interactive. I told it my name — it wrote it back to me. My nine-year-old mind knew something amazing was going on here and the simplicity of the machines in that era made me understand that utilized in this fashion, I was literally staring at a blank canvas, just in digital form.
Child wonderment took over, I asked every question I could think of, plus more. I had to know how to do this myself. This was the dark ages, no iPhone, no world wide web, the mouse attached to the computer just kind of sat there — it was more of an interesting gadget than something that held a really useful purpose. He showed me enough to get started and threw me a book that I still have on a shelf today: 30 Computer Programs for the Homeowner, in BASIC.
There couldn’t have been a more boring book, but it dropped a dose of reality on the magic while somehow managing to keep my interest. Not long after, likely due to lots of pestering, I learned a little about graphics and animation programming, which culminated in a spinning Pac-man on the screen. Due to hardware limitations of the time, Pac-man was purple instead of yellow, but I felt like I discovered some kind of super power.
From that point on, everything in life took on a different perspective. From school work, to animations on a commercial, to trajectory of a baseball off a bat, I kept asking myself “how would I write a program to answer that question?”
Years later, unfortunately after my ol’ Papa left this world, programming and math at school finally converged. I was having trouble with some formulas in Algebra II and out of frustration (and/or boredom) tried to implement some of the formulas as functions in a programming language. It worked, and the breakdown of the formulas into logical steps actually made the subject capture my attention. I can remember thinking “I wish the teachers would explain it in this fashion, it’s easier to understand and kind of fun — I bet kids would find this interesting and pay more attention.”
I still stand by this notion. 25 years later, everything is now at our fingertips, literally. The only barriers are ones placed by us. Basic fundamentals of programming should be introduced to children as early as possible in schools. Programming languages like Logo, created in 1967, are still around and designed exactly for this purpose. Planting these seeds, fertilizing them with the wonderment and creativity of a child’s mind, will only lead to positive outcomes as they develop and mature.
Let’s start now and harness that aura of magic.