Never too young to learn programming

Nowadays, the ability to write computer code is almost as fundamental as writing and arithmetic. Björn Regnell is passionate about getting programming onto school timetables, preferably from the very start.

Bjorn Regnell

Björn Regnell. Photo: Mats Nygren

He works practically towards this goal with children at Vattenhallen and by trying to influence public opinion and lobbying the authorities. Björn Regnell is a Professor of Software Engineering at LTH, but claims that programming is too important to leave to the computer nerds.

His key argument is about democracy.

“The society we are building is now so interwoven with developments in IT that it is difficult to keep up without a basic understanding of computers. Most people use computers but many are afraid to ‘lift the lid’.

“Schools teach a lot of basic skills that are still needed, but computers control a lot of systems in our society: the monetary, legal, e-Government, media, transport and energy systems. We need to understand that it is people who decide what computers do, that they are a human artefact”, says Regnell.

More and more will be digitalised within the near future. Money is already only ones and zeros on computers, he points out.

“The media write about some of these issues, but don’t see how they penetrate the whole of society. Far too few can take things into their own hands and influence the situation.”

Other arguments relate to culture and creativity. A computer program is alive and can influence its surroundings; schools should give everyone the chance to understand this creative process.

It is also a question of the individual’s role as a consumer and producer. More knowledge reduces the risks of becoming the victim of clever programs. (Björn Regnell boycotts Facebook because he doesn’t want to be part of their business idea.)

He has appeared on television on Rapport and has had opinion pieces published in the press.

Of course, he is also interested in seeing more computer science students at LTH, especially female students, as they are in a minority. However, he also sees how programming can bring to life other school subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry. Computer code is written almost exclusively in English, so that is another subject that can be integrated. Programming also requires pupils to practise logic and abstract thinking.

The project at Vattenhallen for younger children is funded by the working group for gender equality and equal opportunities at LTH. It is mostly school classes that come to try out programming. However, it is also important to teach their teachers and courses are therefore organised for them, as well as a summer school and workshops.

Björn Regnell has chosen to use the programming language Skala and the Kojo development environment, which is open source, so everyone can contribute further developments.

“With Kojo, it is easy to learn concepts like sequence, alternative, repetition and abstraction. A short piece of code can be given a name and the name can then be used again and again. The children take a few steps in the basics of computer science, but this can be developed further.”

In England, a decision has been taken to introduce computing onto the curriculum from the age of five. Estonia has also put the subject on the school timetable. In the future Björn Regnell wants to see the subject on teacher training programmes and has taken part in an appeal with colleagues from KTH and Linköping University. Coder Dojo is an organisation that teaches programming to those interested, and has offices in Malmö and Lund.

“We want to show how software and electronics interact in a project to control objects with Kojo. It is a collaboration between the Departments of Computer Science, Automatic Control and EIT at LTH.”

MATS NYGREN

 

Programmering

Olivia Jonsson learnt how to guide the little turtle around the screen.

The art of teaching a turtle to draw

Kojo is the name of the program that a group of primary school children got to play with at Vattenhallen in mid-November. They controlled a little turtle on the screen that drew pictures exactly as they told him to.

 The turtle was not very clever; the children had to tell him everything. Where he should stand, what direction he should go in and what he should do. However, once they’d explained everything, he did exactly as he was told, time and time again exactly the same, unless he was told otherwise.

The children initially seemed very interested, but they quickly lost interest when the pictures didn’t turn out as they had intended. Some amused themselves with pre-prepared exercises instead of making their own new ones.

Drawing a person was one of the first exercises. Olivia Jonsson showed a clear interest in drawing her figure and dad Marcus showed great patience in guiding her first steps in programming. As an LTH alumni, he has basic experience of programming. Olivia often plays games on the computer at home, but this was something else.

LTH student Miriam Ahlberg was leading the exercise for the first time. She thought the children did very well.