Coding can change the world
Technology will solve an ever growing aspect of the problems in the world around us, which is why Linda Liukas teaches programming to children through stories and games.
If coding is the language of the 2000’s, we should be teaching poetry instead of grammar.
This is the core message that author and illustrator Linda Liukas wants to send. She has gained worldwide attention with her efforts to start teaching coding to children, particularly girls. If the world’s problems are to be solved via programming, the currently male-dominated field will need women too.
Besides, programmers have to be creative and the world of technology needs stories.
You learn a language by using it, therefore methods to teach programming should be diverse too. When I began to study programming, the only learning materials available were boring, dry, thick books. There were no stories at all, Liukas explains.
So Liukas began to think about the big players in information technology as animals: Linux became a penguin and Apple a snow leopard.
Stories help us to understand the world, ourselves and each other. Liukas therefore believes that stories can reach a huge number of people who could benefit from learning the language and logic of computers.
We raise our children in a world where an increasing number of the problems in our surroundings are computer-related. What will happen if we do not have the vocabulary to describe that which is around us?
Ruby teaches algorithms
During her programming studies, Liukas came up with Ruby, a 6-year-old girl who can help to explain even the most difficult concepts in a storified way to make them easy to understand.
Algorithms, for instance, are explained with a story about Ruby. If Ruby is told to clean up the toys in her room, she will collect all the dolls, cars, balls and blocks, but leave the pens and papers, since they are not toys.
If Ruby is walking around in her pyjamas and told to put on her day clothes, she will put them on but leave the pyjamas on underneath, because she was not told to take them off first.
That is how an algorithm functions: It needs to be told the exact steps to take and when to take them in order to complete a given task or objective.
I might inadvertently teach children to be cheeky, but at least they learn some important things along the way. One of them is that when you write code, it is never perfect from the start, but you must always come back to make corrections.
Indeed, programming is a process of solving a problem step by step, somewhat like following a baking recipe. A key thing to understand is that even big problems can be broken down into smaller problems.
In 2014, Liukas set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a children’s book about programming.
The target was 10,000 dollars, but to her great surprise the crowdsourcing campaign raised 380,000 dollars. Hello Ruby! Maailman paras koodisatukirja, “the world’s best coding storybook”, was published in Finnish in 2015.
Now, there are four Hello Ruby children’s books and they have been translated into 25 languages. The biggest markets for these books are in China, Japan, the United States and the Middle East.
Liukas’ second book was born from the idea that it would be lovely to understand how a computer works. The basic principles behind its functions are still the same as they were 70 years ago.
In the book Journey Inside the Computer, Ruby falls inside a computer and explores the world of components with Mouse, her new friend. The girl admires bits, meets logic gates and gets to know the computer’s parts and programmes.
This is the last generation to know a computer by its screen and mouse. Future generations will talk with computers and they will be everywhere – in cars, stores, even the microchip in your dog will be a computer.
Technology can be used to change the world
Liukas also gives lessons at school to teach children to code. The stories and games help children to learn the logic of computers and programming. One of her highlights of these lessons was when a small girl came to her holding a bicycle light in her hand, and said: “Linda, my dad and I could go on a cycling trip and in the tent in the evening, this light could also be a film projector”.
I look forward to the moments when children understand that they can help solve big problems. That girl understood that technology can change the world and that she can play a part in that.
To illustrate how computers and creativity can be combined in the adult world, Liukas tells a story about Marimekko, a Finnish clothing brand.
I have sometimes wondered what if Armi Ratia, Marimekko’s founder, had been a programmer. She once said that designing clothes just happened to be the channel she used to express herself, but it could also have been something else.
That inspired Liukas to see what would happen if she fed a large number of Marimekko’s playful product names into an artificial intelligence. It took a bit of time and effort, but in the end the effort paid off and the computer began to produce quite funny and fitting words, such as “pyininpakka”, “tanohalti”, “putti”, “pukukka”, “tirkka” and “ruitintullo”.
Even Marimekko’s people liked the names that the computer produced. However, Liukas points out that the machine is not any smarter than before, but it has become superb at finding regularities that humans cannot see. Essentially, a computer will always need a human to set goals for it so that it can function intelligently.
Humans ask the questions, the machine gives the answers. Technology is a tool that humans need to solve problems.
Liukas spoke at the at Sosiaali- ja terveydenhuollon atk-päivät, an IT event for social services and healthcare in Jyväskylä on May 2018.
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