Building a SHIP - Toolset

We're almost at the end of CSTUY SHIP's first journey. The Shipmates and stewards will be showing off their work in another day or so and I'm excited to see their finished projects.

But what toolset are they using.

With knew we would be working with two rooms of relative beginners. We needed something that allowed us to develop the shipmates CS skills while also having a low cost of entry. At the same time, we had to use an environment that our Stewards would be comfortable with as they would be both supporting the shipmates and developing their own projects.

Those of you that know me know that I'm not a fan of drag and drop languages. I've looked at them time and again. I even made a concerted effort while exploring a version of the new proposed AP course earlier this year 1. Languages such as scratch require almost no ramp up but for kids that are old enough for a traditional text based language I've found the following:

  • After a short time, my students find DnD languages restrictive and slow. They can get more done more quickly by typing.
  • Many kids work on laptops with small screens. Small screens and DnD languages are not a good match.
  • It's much easier to look things up in a text based language.
  • I'm not convinced that starting with a DnD is in any way better prepares a student for a text based language.

Bottom line, I've had to rescue a number of kids who were turned off by the "toy" factor of languages like scratch and appinventor.

DnD languages are probably fine for younger kids who are experimenting and playing around but for my kids, I want something more real.

The contenders:

Python - I'm a big python fan. It's one of my go to languages. Low cost of entry and very flexible.

Scheme - I love functional. It's simple, but it's a harder sell for parents and while in school, it's ok to take a few days to ramp up to get to the fun stuff, in a summer program, a delay in fun can be deadly.

Javascript / web based - I also really like Javascript but the development environments are pretty lousy and it's almost "C like" in the number of hidden problems for newbies.

Java - I'm not really a fan of the language but it is pretty straightforward and it is the language of the AP exam. I'm not a fan of AP but as we're trying to build a program from the ground up, it doesn't hurt to be able to say "this will prepare you for APCS."

The winner:

So what did we use? Processing. Processing is a wrapper and IDE around Java. It's really simple to get started with and it makes all sorts of graphics work very easy. Here's a simple processing program that creates a circle wherever you click the mouse:

void setup() {
  size(400,400);
}

void mouseClicked() {
    fill(color(random(255),random(255),random(255)));
    ellipse(mouseX,mouseY,20,20);
}

void draw() {

}

That's it. No public static void main… or anything like that, but it's legit Java, has types and classes plus:

  • great online documentation.
  • it's used to interface with arduino.
  • it has libraries for web cams, music, internet APIs, and more.

By using something like processing, the shipmates learn a real language with sufficient depth to do something real and there's also enough of an online community so that they can continue to work on their own if they can't avail themselves of our future programs.

While we were convinced that processing was the right choice for the shipmates. I wasn't 100% sold on it as the best choice for the stewards. Python would probably have been better for them but most of them will be doing advanced Python (as well as Javascript) in their classes in the fall and I didn't want to teach them something now and reteach it to them in another month. On the other hand, they all already knew Java and there was still plenty of neat things for them to explore with processing. In the end, I think we made the right choice.

Footnotes:

1

After going through the curriculum and scratch in depth, I concluded that the intro course I designed and my team has evolved over the past ten years is a stronger and more appropriate course for our students.

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