How Kids Can Learn to Code on an iPad, Part I

iPad Pro. Image credit: Apple

The dominant computing device of the last 30 years was the PC (or Mac). Almost every family had one, and any kid who wanted to learn to code could do so. Starting in about 2010, there was a distinct shift to mobility, smartphones and iPads. The very design of these devices weighed against software languages and learning to code. There are signs this is harming our youngest. However, help is on the way.


What got me started thinking along these lines was a discussion with my spouse who is a college professor. She teaches UNIX, Java, C++, Python and Perl. She has noted that students without a decent background in mathematics, as simple as algebra, have a very hard time learning computer languages.

The reason, I believe, is that computer languages are primarily a representation of an algorithm, even if a very simple one. Without experience manipulating algorithms, learning a computer language is tough. Possible. But tough.

I thought back on my own experiences. I learned Fortan as a sophomore in college and used it for most of my career (along with other languages). Fortran is still an excellent language for the representation of algorithms in computational science. But that's an aside.

The point is that after years of using mainframes and Fortran, when I bought my first Integer BASIC Apple II with its 4,096 bytes of RAM, I was immediately comfortable with the interface. The only way I could communicate with the Apple II was via BASIC. I recognized the limits of Integer, and later Applesoft floating point, BASIC, but I could still identify the underlying principles. "I recognize this primitive language as a subset, a simpler variation of Fortran," I thought.

In other words, the first and most enduing relationship I had with a personal computer was via a computer language. Later, after having worked at NASA Houston as a summer intern, working with the Space Shuttle Mission Simulator, I came back home in the fall and wrote a Space Shuttle Landing Simulator for the Apple II. I sold over a thousand copies, which was pretty good in those early Apple II days. I was hooked and inspired.

A Vision for the Future

I've told this story for a good reason. My first experience with a personal computer was via a programming language. I typed in games. I carefully typed in the psychotherapy game Eliza by hand from a magazine. Then I modified it. I learned what I could do, and that led to a personal vision of what my future might hold.

Now, I will admit that I was a bit unique. I was on a strong science track, graduated with a B.S. in astrophysics and later obtained an M.S. in physics (quantum mechanics). Again, I mention this only as an admission that not every young person can or will take this career path.

However, the overarching theme here is how a young person reacts to what might possibly be their very first personal computational device, an iPad.

By its orignal concept and its very design, the iPad was geared to be a content consumption device. Gone were PC user accounts, the Microsoft Windows Registry, arduous backups, confusing networking, and a complex maze of cryptic file names. Instead the early users delighted in being able to tap, browse the Internet, read a Kindle book, shop, socialize with friends, and play games—sometimes with other people on the Internet.

It was perfect.

For adults.

Is a vision for a personal future being formed here?

By and by, however as children started using the iPad, the very nature of the iPad's design, the popularity of the App Store, and the technical realities of the Internet weighed against a rich learning environment. The first experience youngsters have with an iPad is that it's fun, easy to use, and one can talk and shop. Oh, and it can be dangerous. Watch where you go.

Dangerous. Fun.

I surmise several things here. First, it requires extra special attention by teachers and parents to steer young people towards productive and educational use of the iPad and second, those early experiences with the iPad tend to weigh against a vision for how this device (or one like it) can become an important part of one's career. Not always. But all too often.

I can back this up with a story from my Ph.D. spouse. She has taught a course called "Introduction to Computer Gaming." It's a technical class that teaches students, with Python, the rudiments of 2D games. By and large, the students have poor math skills and are more interested in playing games than they are learning to write them. Many are distracted, confused and dismayed by the art of writing Python code to make things happen on a computer display. But when they finish the class, they think they're ready for Lucasfilm, not realizing that their math and animation skills are as far from what professional animators do on supercomputers as a candle is from an O-class star.

It's Apple's job to sell a lot of iPads and make a lot of money, but nowadays, thanks to the simplicity of iOS devices, (and a certain lack of leadership from Apple) it takes a special attention to computer education and the productive use of a tablet. If done well, and the student has a strong vision of themselves and what their future can hold, the very basic iPad in their hands can be a ticket to a wondrous future in just about any career field. The gamut of opportunties is very wide and can include science, art, writing, biology, robotics, aerospace, medicine, medical research, or, yes, computer graphics.

The Next Steps

In future installments of this series, I'm going to delve into the tools available to young people that could ignite their personal passion for problem solving. After all, when one ponders what employers are looking for now and in the future, it will basically always be problem solving, communication and teamwork. That's true whether the young intern is building a payroll database, designing a personal robot or animating the next Pixar movie.

Next year, I'll continue with everything I can think of that relates to this endeavor. Meanwhile, all you educators and developers.... tell me what you're up to and point me to the best of breed programming tools. I'm not talking about iOS word games. I'm talking about stellar iPad software (and hardware) that can truly inspire our children and take future generations of humans to the stars.

Okay. I'll settle for Mars right now.