STEM Activities: Improve your coding vocabulary
How coding languages work in words and pictures, from Robotics & Beyond.
Hi! I’m journalist Caroline Delbert and this is The Toolkit from Robotics & Beyond 501(c)3. Our goal every Tuesday morning is to give you some videos, projects, and products that help kids (and parents) get inspired by science, technology, engineering, math, and creative design.
This week in issue 11 we’re going to talk about code words. When you write code, you use words or abbreviations that mean specific things depending on the programming language you’re using. But languages have changed a huge amount over time and continue to evolve. Now, drag-and-drop languages like Scratch help people understand coding ideas without having to type everything out directly. Let’s look at some of the ways programming relies on words.
The symbolism of coding languages
I love Emily Nakashima’s 2018 talk on the history of visual programming languages, including how ambitious programmers in the 1960s were packing in cutting-edge features like turning drawn schematics into code:
Purely visual languages, where imagery stands in altogether for most of the words and commands we type for other coding languages, are a great thought exercise. Think about looking at rebus riddles, where pictures “add up” to a well known phrase or movie title.
But coding languages are always symbolic, even when they’re just letters and numbers. Each word or phrase represents a decision or command. Even the term code makes us think of secret code, billing codes, error codes — times when symbols stand in for other things.
All the words we use when we write computer code are standing in for ideas, which means we can fine-tune those words and ideas to be as usable and understandable for as many different people as possible.
Ages 5-8: Scratch Code Blocks Explained (9 min)
YouTuber Surfing Scratcher goes through all the different kinds of blocks that are part of the Scratch language, where the designers use both words and visual cues to help you understand what a piece of block code is doing. Scratch uses a jigsaw puzzle element that even very young kids understand, where only a certain shape of block fits into another. As we get older, these ideas transition into “adult” code where many languages are object oriented and modular — just without the colorful literal shape.
Ages 8-12: Minecraft Hour of Code (36 min)
Minecraft YouTuber Logdotzip hosts a special Scratch activity that uses the art style and assets kids are used to seeing inside Minecraft. What I like about this activity is that it shows us the ways even a “drag and drop” programming idea relies on existing knowledge that, if it’s not explained clearly and well to everyone, can exclude people with less access to computers or software like Minecraft. But kids who are used to running around in the blocky 3D world of Minecraft can see similar characters and assets move around and perform their programming in real time.
Ages 12-15: Java Basic Keywords (23 min)
Programmer Marcus Biel has a YouTube series where he walks through Java language ideas and example projects, but in this very first video, he explains a bunch of basic Java code concepts that are used again and again in the language itself. The ideas include everything from how you should name your different variables to the right punctuation in order to execute an idea. It’s a great at-a-glance resource to see how Java combines real words and ideas from written language with math, spacing, and programming execution.
(Last week’s newsletter was: How does online learning work?)
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