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Programming IT Technology

How To Encourage a Young Teen To Learn Programming? 1095

Posted by Soulskill
from the electroshock dept.
Anonymous Hacker writes "I'm in a bit of a bind. My young teenage son is starting to get curious about computers, and in particular, programming. Now, I'm a long time kernel hacker (Linux, BSD and UNIX). I have no trouble handling some of the more obscure things in the kernel. But teaching is not something that I'm good at, by any means. Heck, I can't even write useful documentation for non-techies. So my question is: what's the best way to encourage his curiosity and enable him to learn? Now, I know there are folks out there with far better experience in this area than myself. I'd really appreciate any wisdom you can offer. I'd also be especially interested in what younger people think, in particular those who are currently in college or high school. I've shown my son some of the basics of the shell, the filesystem, and even how to do a 'Hello World' program in C. Yet, I have to wonder if this is the really the right approach. This was great when I was first learning things. And it still is for kernel hacking, and other things. But I'm concerned whether this will bore him, now that there's so much more available and much of this world is oriented towards point-n-click. What's the best way to for a young teen to get started in exploring this wonderful world of computers and learning how to program? In a *NIX environment, preferably." Whether or not you have suggestions for generating interest or teaching methods, there was probably something that first piqued your curiosity. It seems like a lot of people get into programming by just wondering how something works or what they can make it do. So, what caught your eye?
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How To Encourage a Young Teen To Learn Programming?

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  • Problem solving ability grows only by tackling small small challenges at first.Again, u build that ability by slowly advancing your level.Not to mention that, you have to burn out to really learn something. To write great code, you have to go through great code that others have written. In short,there are no shortcuts .
    • by h4rm0ny (722443) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:31AM (#24286249) Journal

      Perhaps, but there are many elements to programming some of which are perhaps easier to learn than others. Teaching his son to program may benefit from being able to distinguish these elements. My initial suggestion would be to give him Python because this will let him learn the critical elements of program structure and algorithms without getting bogged down in learning the idiosyncracies of a language like C++ (which I do love). For similar reasons, Python will also offer fast return on investment. He'll be churning out programs that do what he wants them to in half the time he would be in C++ or Java.

      Of course the most important thing is probably to let him drive the learning for the most part. If he's a bright and technically minded lad, he may appreciate the power and intricacies of C++. He'll need the language sooner or later if he gets involved in many of the big open source projects which would also be a great way to get involved. Things are usually more fun when done as part of a group.
      • by elrous0 (869638) * on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @08:17AM (#24288101)
        If you're going to pursue this dream for your son, I suggest the "stage mother" approach. Force him to program, drag him to computer conventions and force him to take computer classes, and when he starts to cry tell him you're going to put his dog to sleep if he doesn't perform. It may sound harsh, but if you're ever going to exploit and live vicariously through your kid. It's the time-tested way.

        Granted, to date, it's mostly been used for singers and actors. But there is no reason it couldn't work for other professions as well. Just be careful to dodge the whiskey bottles when he gets older.
    • by Swizec (978239)
      Yep, if he doesn't have the drive to learn programming on his own he never will. I remember back in the day I used to go through Pascal's help index to find interesting new stuff to learn because what the teacher was teaching was simply way too slow and uninteresting for me.

      In the same light, perhaps you should try the observing approach. Give him a problem that will pique his interest and just observe. Don't meddle, don't teach, wait until he gets truly stuck.
      • by montyzooooma (853414) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:00AM (#24286447)

        Yep, if he doesn't have the drive to learn programming on his own he never will.

        Is that really fair? When a lot of us started programming every home computer had a built in version of Basic (or Forth if you had a Jupiter Ace... you lonely lonely soul...) so jumping in wasn't too hard when the first thing you looked at after bootup was the Basic interpreter.

        • by Swizec (978239) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:17AM (#24286591) Homepage
          For most people programming is a long road of breaking your head against a problem until it gets solved. Long hours spent tapping away at the keyboard and honestly "normal" people think we're all out of our minds.

          So no, if he doesn't have the drive to learn and problem solve he's better off outside playing with a ball ... or girls since he's a teen.

          I didn't mean that he's gonna have to learn programming himself, guidance is awesome to have, but the really good programmers out there are mostly self taught, people who were able to absorb knowledge wherever it came from, be it a peer, a book or an actual teacher. The ones who were "taught" programming are code monkeys with a very limited ability of actual programming, sure they can code, but they can't Code. If you catch my drift.
          • by Fred_A (10934) <`fred' `at' `fredshome.org'> on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:59AM (#24286915) Homepage

            So no, if he doesn't have the drive to learn and problem solve he's better off outside playing with a ball ... or girls since he's a teen.

            In that case just lock him in behind a card locked door with a blank card and a card writer. Leave the ball and girls outside and he'll learn eventually (you might want to prepare some flat food in case he doesn't figure stuff out fast enough).

          • Re:No ShortCuts !!! (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Tim C (15259) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @06:40AM (#24287223)

            For most people programming is a long road of breaking your head against a problem until it gets solved. Long hours spent tapping away at the keyboard and honestly "normal" people think we're all out of our minds.

            And then most of them go back to driving a truck, or waiting on tables, or shuffling paper, or laying bricks or whatever "normal" job it is that they do.

            Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with any of those jobs, but let's face it - they're not exactly riveting, and yet we are the mad ones...

          • by twistedsymphony (956982) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @07:13AM (#24287489) Homepage

            For most people programming is a long road of breaking your head against a problem until it gets solved. Long hours spent tapping away at the keyboard and honestly "normal" people think we're all out of our minds. So no, if he doesn't have the drive to learn and problem solve he's better off outside playing with a ball ...

            I know at least for me the DRIVE comes from the desired destination... My advice for the fellow in TFA is to have his son pick a project. Start with something simple.. maybe it's just a slideshow or a tick-tak-toe game. Then start building it. Guide him a bit in the basics but encourage him to learn how to search for solutions that are beyond his knowledge. Once you have a basic program built start adding features.

            Maybe it's just because I'm partial to this but consider getting a few microcontrollers and teaching him to program on that platform. Writing something that interacts with a mouse keyboard and monitor on a computer is one thing... making something where you physically assemble the hardware as well is something else altogether. This will also test the waters in other tech areas... maybe he decides that he doesn't like programming but loves electronics, or maybe he like them both and wants to get into computer system or robotics.

            But seriously... just pick a goal, and work towards it... the best way to learn is though experience.

            • Re:No ShortCuts !!! (Score:5, Interesting)

              by baxissimo (135512) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @07:38AM (#24287715)

              Agreed! I think graphics are a great way to get young folks interested in programming. They were the thing that captured my interest the most anyway. I can still remember trying to figure out some Apple BASIC code that made a little blip bounce around the screen back when I barely knew what a less than sign meant. But if making things move around on the screen doesn't motivate your kid, then find out what does. Other projects I remember working on early on were tools to make D&D characters, because I liked playing D&D but thought the process of re-rolling the dice a thousand times till I got the stats I wanted for a character was too laborious :-) Also my friends and I tried to create a computer version of the BattleTech board game. We had know idea what we were doing, and never got anything even close to playable, but I still learned a lot from it, and over the subsequent years as I learned knew tricks and techniques I always could recognize them as something useful, as something that would have helped us get over one hurdle or another I faced on those early projects.

              These days I think maybe young folks might be more motivated by web stuff that they can show their friends. Hey check out my web page! (Which would suggest javascript or java as the first language) We didn't have a modem till I was in high school so those things weren't really an option back when I was learning. It looks like a lot of kids are writing silly plugins for Firefox too.

              But still I think graphics is good, because before long you start to see that you need to learn some math to do more interesting things with it.

        • by jimicus (737525) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:31AM (#24286687)

          (or Forth if you had a Jupiter Ace... you lonely lonely soul...)

          I had a Jupiter Ace, you insensitive clod!

          (No kidding. I did. And a crappy little machine it was too. Think "ZX spectrum without the software library").

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by SpinyNorman (33776)

          jumping in wasn't too hard when the first thing you looked at after bootup was the Basic interpreter.

          Get off my lawn you whippersnapper!

          I started with a NASCOM-1 1MHz 2K RAM (1K for you, 1K for the "monitor" program) Z80 kit in 1978. When I finished soldering it together the only thing I got after bootup was a prompt at which you could enter hex bytes (after you hand assembled your program on paper) to a chosen memory address.

          I'd actually consider this approach for someone learning about computers today. Bu

    • by D'Sphitz (699604) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:52AM (#24286381) Journal
      Nobody starts out with kernel hacking. Kernel hacks are bragging rights for adult geeks, sweet myspace pages and guild websites are bragging rights for teenagers.

      Teach him some PHP and HTML, or if you're an elitist teach him Ruby, or if you're a sadist teach him Perl. Teach him some JavaScript and Flash and Photoshop, and then let him go do the things that will impress his friends and therefore hold his interest, like rickroll pages and guitar hero videos.

      If he's really into it the serious stuff will follow naturally in time, no point in intimidating him right off the bat.
      • by Orkie (899576) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:46AM (#24286805)
        Nice way to write off everybody between the ages 13 and 19 there.
        • by IamTheRealMike (537420) * <mike@plan99.net> on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @07:51AM (#24287851) Homepage

          That's not "writing them off", that's being realistic.

          When I was a teenager learning to program, I wanted to write video games. And I did. It was my first exposure to open source - a Delphi 3D MMORPG project. It was hopelessly over ambitious for our little team but it was fun, and taught me a hell of a lot about programming. And actually the maintainer/founder of that project went on to work for Ubisoft, so it worked out OK for him.

          Now the problem is that writing video games is actually pretty hard. Writing simple web apps is much easier. It also has the HUGE benefit that you can show your friends. I was very rarely able to show my friends what I'd written but when I did, it was a great feeling, because my friends intuitively understood that making a 3D world was hard.

          So I think writing web apps is not a bad place to start. The main problem is that web apps aren't video games, and all teenagers want to write video games. If our kernel hacker isn't too hung up on Freedom, I'd strongly recommend getting an Xbox360 and setting him up with the XNA framework. It's very much oriented towards hobbyist and beginner programmers.

          There are lots of tutorials, you write software in C# which is straightforward enough for novices but won't limit him, and the result can be uploaded to XBox Live or played when his friends come round. Importantly, it looks a whole lot more cool and professional (imho) if your work is running on a real games console.

          There is also a full, free 3D engine available (TorqueX) which can help him get started with writing simple 3D games without needing to master trigonometry and Direct3D. Back when I was doing this stuff, you had raw OpenGL or Crystal Space if you used C++ and were feeling brave.

      • by Moraelin (679338) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @06:40AM (#24287213) Journal

        While I'll aggree that kernel hacking won't get anyone interested in programming, I think programming web sites is somewhat lacking in motivation. As you were saying, you want it to provide some serious bragging rights.

        Whatever you want to do on the web at teen level, has been done before and better. Publishing photos? There are a ton of providers which achieve the same thing. Forums? Ditto. All you need for a good guild web site are webmaster skills or maybe graphics design, _not_ programming. Approaching it from the programming side is the way to get the least bragging rights, with the most effort. Everyone won't go "woot, what an original forum you programmed!", but the more discouraging, "geesh, why don't you use PhpBB like everyone else?"

        Personally, looking back at what motivated _me_ back then, I'd say start with games. That was my motivation. I could throw together a game as good as Psion and the gang made for the ZX 81 and later ZX Spectrum, and show it to my classmates and get some serious appreciation. The first game I wrote, when I invited a couple of classmates to see it, they ended up playing it all afternoon. Mind you, it was uber-simplistic by today's standards, but it was as good as anyone could possibly do on a 1K ZX-81.

        It was motivating enough to get me started on assembly and converting it by hand to hex.

        Nowadays I wouldn't advise anyone to write a game from scratch at home, but there's a _lot_ you can achieve as a mod. And mod-friendly games are getting rather common these days. I can think of a few where most of the game logic (i.e., minus the graphics and such) was Python, one even TCL, and one was scripted in Java.

        So basically I'd say, show the guy how to make his own mods. Even if it's just for cheating it's a start.

        And the distant carrot of making it big and famous is there too. Both Counter-Strike and Team Fortress started as mods, and ended up major successes.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by donaldm (919619)
      You are right there are no short-cuts although I would suggest he become familiar with the basics of using a *nix system such as how to use the command line and why this is still preferred for certain tasks. This is not to say that GUI should be disdained but you should be able to point out when a GUI is the best solution to a problem and also when the command line may be the better way to go.

      Now to programming. It is easier to explain the basics and it is very easy to show by example (keep it simple at f
  • python (Score:5, Interesting)

    by utnapistim (931738) <dan...barbus@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:15AM (#24286157) Homepage

    Teach him python (or ruby, or whatever else that is high-level and easy).

    It's the same as basic was twenty years ago, just much more powerful, easyer to learn and more fun.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Fingerbob (613137)
      I second this. most folks I know who love programming learned a nice easy language as a kid (BASIC in my case, a long while back). Python is easy enough to learn how to program in, but flexible enough to draw stuff on the screen, play sounds, talk to remote machines - mess with what the machine is capable of. I'd definately pick a friendly language to begin with (and I'm not sure C or C++ fit that bill, I'm still learning good C++ practice after a decade of commercial use).
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Eudial (590661)

        I second this. most folks I know who love programming learned a nice easy language as a kid (BASIC in my case, a long while back). Python is easy enough to learn how to program in, but flexible enough to draw stuff on the screen, play sounds, talk to remote machines - mess with what the machine is capable of.

        I'd definately pick a friendly language to begin with (and I'm not sure C or C++ fit that bill, I'm still learning good C++ practice after a decade of commercial use).

        What you choose as a first language matters. It should be easy, and teach basic flow control in a very direct matter that allows for an intuitive understanding of those subjects (BASIC was the name of the game when I was young, python is where you'll want to go today). But I'd definitely leave the door open for C or C++ as well (hell, I learned C when I was 15). Buy a good book on python, and K&R to teach him C, and tell him to start out with python, and get into C if and when he feels like it.

        It's also

      • Re:python (Score:5, Insightful)

        by silentcoder (1241496) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:28AM (#24286659) Homepage

        >I'm still learning good C++ practice after a decade of commercial use
        Don't worry, so is Bjarn Stroustrop

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Olix (812847)

      Don't teach him anything, its better if he sits down and learns it himself.

      I know that learning in lectures in college is a very different ballgame to learning from instruction by one person, but I found that I only really improved my coding ability when I sat down and got myself a project I wanted to work towards. If the kid is interested in learning to code and wants to do interesting things with the computer, then he'll learn it himself - just give him some easy IDE and supply him with ideas for somethin

      • Re:python (Score:5, Insightful)

        by xalorous (883991) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:12AM (#24286551) Journal

        Dude, this guy's kid looks up to him, as a role model. The number one reason he wants to program is because his dad does it. By all means, give the kid the tools he needs to learn to program. Pick a language with lots of tutorials and books and wide acceptance (C or Java perhaps?). Get him to draw flowcharts or write pseudocode (people still do that?). Give him some fun problems to work out. Go over code with him. Show him ways to improve his code and explain the reasoning behind them. His interest in spending time with you will keep him at it until he's hooked on programming itself.

    • Re:python (Score:5, Funny)

      by Malekin (1079147) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:12AM (#24286549)

      Forbid him to learn python. Then he'll do it himself to spite you.

  • Your approach is still correct. The point and click gives results fast, but doesn't actually teach you anything. If he find the basics, boring, don't even bother anymore. Programming isn't for him.

    Heck, I can say that programming for me became boring the day I started doing it professionally. I would rather direct my son in a completely orthogonal direction.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jank1887 (815982)

      heh, he said orthogonal

      I would recommend you pick up some sort of embedded logic kit. Something, anything, that translates code into real world manipulation. Even if it just winds up being a fancy digital clock kit, the fact that he can write some code and see something physical happen can completely enamor a kid.

      I'm saying this from the perspective of an engineer. Circuit theory class was one thing. But when we could controllably vary the intensity of a lightbulb, and then in digital logic class pattern

  • I don't know what your family situation is (indeed, I don't know if your his mother or father) but is the other parent any good at teaching?

    I'd say let him try out a few high level languages where he can build simple programs that at least do something quickly - he could get bored with the details of C - and see which suits him. Help him out if and only if he gets stuck. If he reaches the limits of that language then maybe it's time to indtroduce C or assembler.

  • Write a game (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gsslay (807818) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:21AM (#24286179)

    Write a game, perhaps based on a favourite book. Or something that involves a subject he's already interested. Doesn't matter if it's a simple text game. Let him write it on his own. Then when he's finished suggest a few improvements. Repeat. Once he's bored with that, start a new project.

    That's how I learnt.

    And for pity sake, do not ask him to kernel hack. It's way too abstract. You need something user-level with immediate and very visible results.

    • Re:Write a game (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:33AM (#24286259)

      I'll second that. Many of us learned on 8-bit home computers, where you could understand everything that was going on, and we made games. Brilliant self education.

      The best way of doing that now is with the Hydra console [xgamestation.com]. The hardware is completely documented and described at the beginner level in the book. And there is no OS or APIs to deal with, disguising what's really going on. You code straight to the bare metal.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by dkf (304284)

      Doesn't matter if it's a simple text game.

      It's better if it is. Fewer moving parts, much easier to see what's going on.

      A pretty good one to start with is a number guessing game. Teaches about control structures, IO, state and validation of input. Go from there on to something like the Animal Game [animalgame.com]. You can use that to teach about decision trees and persistence. And that covers a very large fraction of the foundation of computing.

  • Teach about game programming. E.g. show how to draw simple graphics using libSDL and then perhaps give hints how the graphics could be moved etc.

    I started programming myself, because I wanted to write games. I've been programming for 10 years and I still write games on my free time.

  • by blahplusplus (757119) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:26AM (#24286225)

    C++ primer plus by stephen prata.

    http://www.amazon.com/Primer-Plus-5th-Stephen-Prata/dp/0672326973/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1216718603&sr=8-1 [amazon.com]

    It is one of the best ways to learn programming from absolutely knowing nothing! Because it explains in very accurate, precise and simple language that is very well expressed.
    This is where I learned to program years ago, and I'd challenge anyone to find a better place to bring an absolute know nothing about programming into the fold.

    It explains all the simple functions and whatnot for console programming, etc, if he can't dig that then he's not fit to program, the book makes C++ as easy as something as python, or the old visual basic.

    The old visual basic 6 is not a BAD place to start if you can find some good programming books, because the old VB gave "immediate" results that kids often look for.

    • by dargaud (518470) <[ten.duagradg] [ta] [2todhsals]> on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @07:31AM (#24287651) Homepage
      I don't usually write flaming posts, but C++ as a teaching language ?!? You are smoking crack. It has the worst and most complex syntax of any language ever invented. Even Brainf*ck has a cleaner syntax than C++.

      Wanna teach a language, then take one that's both interpreted and compiled like Python, Lua, Ruby. Take something that is radically efficient like Erlang or OCaml. Take something that is meant for teaching like Logo.

      But C++ ?!? Hah, why not Perl, then !

  • I taught myself BASIC on an Apple ][e when I was eight or so from books I checked out at the library.

    It's fairly easy to read, i.e. TO, FOR, LET, GOTO etc, are self explanatory.

    The most important thing to get through to him is program flow, learning other languages is cake once you understand how to efficiently break a task into parts.
  • In common with (I suspect) a lot of Slashdotters, I started out on computers in the Spectrum/CBM64/BBC days when you had to program, in BASIC, to get anything done and that's what got me going.

    I stayed in computers, eventually doing a Computer Studied degree and worked for several years as a programmer for an IT consultancy company, using C++, Visual Basic, Java and C#. In the end (about five years ago) it seemed that all there was in "programming" was SQL. Now I'm not knocking database developers, but th

  • http://hacketyhack.net/ [hacketyhack.net] is the answer!

    You can write blogs, mp3 downloader/reader and basic graphical interfaces in a few (Ruby) lines.
    I wish I had it when I was a kid... GWBasic wasn't so glamour :-/

  • Basic "Hello 3D" with triangle rotating can be done in ~ 20 lines.

    It takes a while to grasp, but it encourages and rewards experimentation.

    First they will fiddle with numeric constants and see what it ends up, then they will add lines to add more objects, eventually learning cycles and arrays for some animation ...

    Just don't bore them with background stuff unless they want to know it.

  • Solving problems (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Yetihehe (971185) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:35AM (#24286267)
    Show him how he can solve some simple problems for school, so he can later try to solve some more complicated problems. I have started this way when I was 12.
  • by Destrius (956) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:35AM (#24286269)

    Being able to produce pretty pictures is always fun. I learnt programming by spending all my time drawing bouncing balls that changed colour in 320x200 VGA. Of course nowadays kids can use a lot more powerful graphics libraries like the aforementioned SDL, which can let them make a lot cooler stuff.

    If he gets the hang of it, you could even teach him how to write a raytracer. That would also be good for his math, and be a nice project where more advanced programming techniques (e.g. data structures, recursion) and more advanced math (calculus, 3D geometry) have practical uses.

  • NetHack! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ThePhilips (752041) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:42AM (#24286303) Homepage Journal

    Give him nethack (or any other OSS game) to play. After a while when he will get interested - give him the source code for it.

    Programming games is probably most engaging activity. I'm 31 now - but still on it ;)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ThePhilips (752041)

      btw, there are bunch of games written in Python using PyGames framework. That to me sounds definitely as good idea. Using PyGl you can also utilize 3D things.

    • Not NetHack! (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Not NetHack! It was written by the evil Wizard of Yendor with help from his idiot minion Eric S. Raymond; consequently, the source is a horrifying abomination worthy only of the renegade god Moloch. It is not a good learning example. You should be at least a level 20 Kernel Hacker to venture inside.

      Can I suggest instead that you look for a simple game written in Python or Ruby. They are likely to have source that is possible for level 1 Noobies to understand.

  • by IBBoard (1128019) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:43AM (#24286311) Homepage

    The best language to teach him is $trendy_language_of_the_moment. If you don't teach him that then he'll never get anywhere. How can people hope to encourage people to learn when they're using $formerly_trendy_language? It's just so horrible that I'd rather gouge someone else's eyes out with a spoon that use it instead of $trendy_language_of_the_moment!

  • by 6Yankee (597075) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:45AM (#24286325)

    No, really. That way he can share his games or whatever with his classmates, simply by sending them a link.

    Of course it'll be a longish road to get to that point, but it might be a goal he can relate to - and I know I simply wouldn't learn anything unless I could see the point. Still don't at 34, come to think of it :)

  • by shaka (13165) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:46AM (#24286335)

    First off, I think you should start with a language such as Python or Ruby. I started with BASIC which was easy to grasp, and more modern languages are easy yet more powerful.

    Second, when I started programming I was first looking at my brother, writing really simple BASIC programs on the C64. Later, I was interested in fractals and wrote algorithms for drawing fractals. I had a book with code examples for different fractals, but in some other language (I don't remember which). The process of interpreting the algorithm in the first language and translating it to BASIC was very good for learning. Tweaking and extending the algorithms and seeing the changes visually was very encouraging.

    Today, if I were to teach a kid programming, I think I would look into Lego Mindstorms [lego.com]. It helps if the kid is into Lego or robotics, of course. That's a contained environment with a powerful and easy language, which is also part of something else, with immediate feedback on the changes. You can program it in either the Lego-supplied RCX Code (BASIC-like) or ROBOLAB (LabView-based), or any of a number of languages supplied by the community (C, C++, C#, Java, Lua etc).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:47AM (#24286339)

    That's THE way to get ANY teenager to do ANYTHING.

  • How about Logo? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nithinsujir (592733) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:49AM (#24286353)
    I think logo was my first programming experience and I enjoyed it. It's great to see the fruits of your labor instantly in graphical form.
  • Personally (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ledow (319597) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:49AM (#24286357) Homepage

    I don't see that not having a flashy GUI means anything. I grew up in a world where I saw flashy GUI's for exactly what they were. I was much happier hacking DOS to get that extra few KB of base memory than I was playing about in Windows 3.1.

    The problem is that you can't foster curiosity, which is the main driver here. Nothing will make you sit down and learn a programming language more than curiosity for what you can make the computer do, whether you can do something better than Microsoft, etc. You can try very hard to keep interest, though, and there practical results tend to have greater effect - this is why most basic ICT in schools is based around roaming turtles, Lego RCX, "traffic-light" kits etc. Computer-controlled with visible, physical effect.

    Personally, I think the best way to foster the right computer skills isn't to use a computer much at all (this is a philosophy I've held for most of my life - the best way to program is in your head, not a machine - the best way to write a story is on paper, not a word-processor, etc.). The best things to use to learn are simple gadgets. I'm not a gadget person. I'm not even very good at electronics but I struggle along and get a lot done.

    Wire your house for a burglar alarm, controlled by a computer, and involve your children in every step. If your practical skills aren't up to scratch (good, you can "learn" by your mistakes together and your child can try to "out-think" you when you both hit the same problem), you can get X10/DMX-style equipment that makes it a cinch. But there's nothing like a bug that'll scare the crap out of you when the alarm goes off because you didn't cater for a niche-case (opening the back-door while the power was out etc.). It only needs an ancient "sacrifical" computer that doesn't matter if you blow its parallel port, and it introduces every single reason behind having computers - automate tasks that a human could do using simple, cheap components.

    You can learn programming, you can learn embedded programming, you learn about the importance of bug-checking and clean code, you learn about interfacing, buses, serial/parallel data transfer, physical and real-world effects and how to counter them in software (e.g. switch debouncing). You even get to learn how the damn computer does its job so that it's no longer a magic box that does stuff. You get to interface with all types of cool gear. You get to bring practical, real-life skills into the learning environment which can help immensely if your child learns better that way. (And I don't count "how to write a letter in Office", I mean REAL life skills, like practical problems, electricity and electronics, wiring, why the bloody ladder won't stay still and why Daddy put his foot through the roof).

    The rewards are instant, visible, practical, extendible and "show-off-able". The "reward" of having the whole family laugh at a a doorbell that plays a WAV when someone presses it is very rewarding especially when "it was all my son's work". My particular favourite is a doorbell that goes "knock knock" when you ring it. I also bought an old-fashioned door knocker which has an integrated switch in it and want it to set off a "ding-dong" sound, just to see the postman's face. I'm doing it with simple electronics and one of those recorable greetings-card chips but you can do it with a PC easily. Ten minutes of very basic wiring to an old-fashioned joystick port (ancient laptops are great for this sort of thing), a WAV file off a free website and a twenty line program. You can see exactly where his skills lie. Is he a better programmer? Is he a better thinker? Is he better at practicalities? But no matter what he is, it's so simple to do that you can have great fun wiring it up (probably with Mum in the background tapping her feet because she's getting sick of "Yankee Doodle" every time the neighbour's call).

    Then you need to get to the point, as quickly as possible, where he can *think* of new stuff to do himself. You started with a doorbell

  • by 4D6963 (933028) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:52AM (#24286379)

    Video games are fun, and making your own video games is fun too.

    Start by making him learn text game programming, like the price is right. That's both on the very basic level of programming, and a quickly gratifying game to learn.

    Then, maybe I suggest low level game program. And by low level I mean no SDL (well, maybe a wrapper), but writing your own pixels to a frame buffer is more gratifying. As in, teach him how to make a function that write a rectangle on a frame buffer depending on the rectangle's size and the coordinates of its center, then make him move the rectangle around by pressing keys.

    Build on top of that by making he do a very basic game like pong. My first graphical video game was a pong and I coded it in two days, that's how easy it is.

    From that point on, he will probably start to get ambitions. As in, he'll want to draw lines, load sprites, rotate them, use physics, learn about tcp/ip network, signal processing theory and techniques, etc, to achieve a precise purpose. All of these things will fuel his interest towards mathematics and physics, and give him a good reason to learn about and understand these things.

    Finally, introduce him to more "real world" type of programming, by giving him some of the stuff you have to do at work, for uhh.. the sake of his education!

  • My experience (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mtxf (948276) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:56AM (#24286407)

    I started programming when I was about 12, and I am completely self taught. My parents knew nothing about computers, and still know nothing now despite my efforts. Anyway, i started with javascript, html, and php. (This was around 6 years ago). I think it was much easier to start learning the basics of this kinda stuff when you don't have to deal with all the boring (to a 12yo) details of memory management, libraries, and compilers etc. Web programming is something were you can get the instant results and action, you can just keep tweaking the source file and hitting F5 until you get something that works and looks vaguely like what you're after; this is especially useful when you don't know what you're doing. :)

    I had a few books which taught me the basics, a javascript book and a html book. They only covered simple things, (I think the js book was a For Dummies..., actually), but it was enough to get me started. After that I found the php.net docs and a friend showed me loads of his php code and i picked that up fairly quickly.

    Being a website, it's something easy to show off too, it was kinda cool to be like "dude, the whole world can see my webpage!". Following that theme, i got started on irc bots, eggdrops are written in C, and you can script em with tcl. Be careful tho, tcl is kinda quirky and weird (at least, that's how i remember it). But it's great for simple stuff, get the bot to parse some text and reply etc. This might also be a good time to learn some networking stuff. Also since eggdrops can also have C modules written, this is a possible path into C, although I didn't go that way so I don't know how good it is.

    I eventually learned C(++) from some online tutorial, http://www.cplusplus.com/doc/tutorial/ [cplusplus.com] I think. And I wrote a load of code for manipulating some large binary files (game resource files, from Halo). I certainly don't recommend letting anyone learn C solely from some tutorial, since I had rather large gaps in my knowledge at this point (that code i wrote is terrible), but it was some great experience anyway. I played around with some .NET (ugh!) gui stuff, because I didn't know how else to make a gui program at the time (seriously, I don't know how I was meant to know about qt, gtk, or win32 etc at this point) and a program that just prints text on the command line got boring real fast.

    Hacking at computer games was what really drove my interest in C at that time. Reverse engineering of the file formats was fun! Even if I did kinda suck at it and just found most of the info on the web.

    Looking back, I'm thinking I probably would have liked someone to show me python (and maybe perl) much earlier than when i eventually discovered them. php sucks as a general purpose scripting language and C gets tedious for those little tasks.

    Sorry that was all probably a little incoherent, I spent the time I was meant to be doing english homework programming ;)

  • by Chineseyes (691744) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:59AM (#24286431)
    Don't try your to encourage your child to do anything for which they don't have a natural inclination, they will end up hating anything you try to push them towards to forcefully. Give them a well rounded education and make programming one of many things you expose them to, this was what my parents did and I am thankful for it. I lost count of how many people I met in college whose parents had enthusiastically encouraged them to learn one topic or another, especially the children of professors. Some people took off with whatever topic their parents introduced to them but most of them ended up switching majors 4 or 5 times and spending years and many dollars on undergraduate education. Demand excellence in whatever your child has interest in, with the caveat that as they get closer to 18 they have a plan on how they will feed themselves (so you want to be an actor Johnny? Great, better double major in something practical otherwise you'll be waiting tables cause I won't be paying your bills).
  • by jeevesbond (1066726) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:00AM (#24286441) Homepage

    Draw upon the extensive knowledge of the GNU/Linux community, for example:

    • whenever he asks a question, reply with either: 'OMG RTFM!!!11!One' or 'man *question*'. The shortest and most arrogant answer is always most helpful.
    • if there's a piece of hardware not supported, the best way of helping a newbie is by shouting, as loudly as possible, 'IT IS THE MANUFACTURERS FAULT!' Calmly explaining the situation with hardware support in GNU/Linux is not a good idea. It only leads to further questions (to which the answer is 'OMG it's Free software, code the driver yourself you n00b!');
    • if he finds any shortcomings in the software, ensure you encourage him by assuming the problem is his fault. Make certain to chortle condescendingly whenever he points anything out to you. If it is at all possible to blame the shortcoming on him, ensure that as you wander off -- chortling as before -- say, just audibly, 'luser error';
    • newbies feel most secure when their mentors display their superiority, always make sure your boy is aware of your vast knowledge and epic intellect;
    • loudly proclaiming that, 'next year will be the year of the Linux desktop' makes GNU/Linux newbies feel secure about the platform's future;

    If he actually does find a bug, here are some of the basics you should tell him about bug reporting:

    • keep it vague - developers don't want your life story, don't bother with debug traces and all that guff;
    • always gush - the ideal bug report is at least half gushing about how he loves the software;
    • demand developers contact him personally - this is very important, developers prefer communicating privately, private e-mail is best;
    • always raise new reports - it's never worth the bother of checking whether your bug has already been reported;
    • bug reports aren't just for bugs! - feel free to use bug reports for idle chat about the issue, or related things, even for just storing your shopping lists, tricking people into viewing goatse, or even rickrolling the devs;
    • most bug reports are the highest priority - if you're raising a bug report, it's of the highest priority to you, right? So generally, enter bugs with the highest priority possible.

    Now this post may seem like a troll, but if you do exactly the opposite of what I advise, he should do well.

  • by Dean Edmonds (189342) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:03AM (#24286487)

    Whether you teach him programming or someone else does, the most important thing you can do for him is to show your enthusiasm for programming and demonstrate why you love it. Those kinds of things are infectious. If he catches the bug then he'll learn it, one way or another.

  • by OpenSourced (323149) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:46AM (#24286809) Journal

    When I was 15, I had never seen a computer, but I knew that I wanted to work with them. The _idea_ of computing, of writing instructions to make the computer do what I wanted, of playing with something that exhibited some of the powers of human mind, was terribly interesting to me. Getting my hands on my first PC, a thing with a BASIC interpreter and graphics! display in a TV monitor, was an intense experience, even if I cannot say why, what clicked inside me. The making of my very first BASIC program, unaided, reading a manual in a foreign almost-unknown language (English) was a triumph. The making of a program that draw a circle on the screen by calculating the distance to the center, was making mathematics come alive for me for the first time.

    What I mean is that, in my case, no stimulation was needed, and probably difficulties just added emotion. The interest and emotional attachment to the computing world was immediate and intense. I don't know if I'm a typical case, but my anecdotal evidence is yours for what's worth.

  • From NAND to Tetris (Score:4, Informative)

    by STFS (671004) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @05:57AM (#24286903) Homepage
    I guess this really depends on how interested your kid actually is in learning the internals of computers. It might be a good idea to start with a "high level" tool, and I'm not talking about using Python or some such thing, but using Alice and/or LEGO Mindstorm. I've played with Mindstorms myself in a robotics course and I can vouch that you can do a lot of fun and interesting things with it. There's even a C-like programming language and compiler that you can switch to when the "block interface" becomes boring and your kid gets interested in learning more "orthodox" programming.

    Once he has a solid knowledge of basic programming and if he's still interested in learning more of the basics of how computers work and if you are willing to dedicate quite a lot of time and effort to destroying the social life of your kid once and for all and turning him into a full blown geek I'd recommend that you take a look at a course that has been called "From NAND to Tetris" in which students are given a NAND logic gate and must construct their own (simulated) computer out of that by gradually building on top of that NAND gate. Eventually they end up implementing a simple game, such as tetris or snake in a computer that they build from the ground up.

    Here are some links for this material:
    A short introduction to the course: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtXvUoPx4Qs [youtube.com]
    A long introduction to the course (Google Tech Talk) http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7654043762021156507 [google.com]
    The course material itself: http://www.cs.rpi.edu/news/colloquia/December8_2005.html [rpi.edu]

    Above all else I think you need to be sensitive to your kids needs and longings. Who knows, maybe he will not be interested in all about learning the internals of computers but more interested in the usability and design of interfaces (I know, your worst nightmare I'm sure). My point is, don't push him into a direction that isn't to his liking.

  • by OrangeSpyderMan (589635) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @06:11AM (#24286997)
    I've often found that by far the best way of teaching him to do this kind of thing relies on finding something he wants his computer to do for him.

    This could be just about anything - if he likes sports, it could be a sports results and stats database, if he likes RC modeling it could be an interactive application for setups for his radiocontrolled cars. Your only real role here is to ensure he chooses something feasible in a reasonable timeframe (don't suggest writing Quake5 :) )

    The thing I like about this approach, is that it will teach him far more than just "how to do it" - you can start it with a discussion about how he wants to go about it, to start with which language (pros and cons, quick GUI development vs. old school stuff - basically just see what ticks his boxes) and it'll then take you through the basics of data models, and the fact it'll be useful will keep him motivated. Help him break the task up into little bits, and use the first few to teach him the ropes, and then let him try some on his own.

    Make it clear it's his project, that you're there to help whenever and wherever you can - but don't judge. If he wants to start with an Access DB - by all means point out the pros and cons, but it's his toy - let him do it, he should be old enough now to see for himself whether it's "right" or "wrong".
  • by hyades1 (1149581) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @06:42AM (#24287243)

    ...you're his dad. The time you spend with him will be one of the highlights of his life, and will determine how he, in turn, raises his kids. Whether you suck as a teacher or not isn't even on the scale. Try to learn. Do the best you can and encourage him to let his interests take him to other sources. ALWAYS answer his questions.

    Sorry for the polemic, but believe me, your son will stretch himself to understand you far more than he will even for the most gifted teacher. What I owe to my parents can never be repaid, and there isn't a day goes by that I don't miss them.

  • by spyrochaete (707033) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @06:44AM (#24287259) Homepage Journal
    Games are what got me interested in programming. I used to read Creative Computing BASIC games compilations in bed as a youngin'. They had the source code of a game along with a couple of printed-out test runs. I found this an interesting application of programming that spoke to my hobby of video games.

    Why don't you write a game with your son? A text adventure a la Infocom, or a slot machine or dice rolling board game?
  • by NoobixCube (1133473) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @06:38PM (#24297065) Journal
    Try teaching something that will instantly set off the endorphin rewards. You certainly know a whole lot more about what makes him tick than anyone on Slashdot, but most teenagers, myself included (though I'm 20 now...) play games. Get him started on Python and PyOpenGL, that way he can easily get some 3D graphics on screen.

    For some reading on education in general, in case you're curious, Dimensions of Learning is a good place to start. It's a relatively current teaching model. I have the textbook on it, but you can find general outlines of it everywhere; though, curiously, it doesn't have it's own Wikipedia page. I might need to do something about that, unless it's in another article.

It was kinda like stuffing the wrong card in a computer, when you're stickin' those artificial stimulants in your arm. -- Dion, noted computer scientist

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