A Girl and Her Robot

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The Hour of Code teaches kids how to program a robot in less than one hour. No prior experience required.

In less than one hour, a first grader programmed an iPad-controlled robot to navigate through a maze – and she completed the challenge before any of the boys did.

Full disclosure: the first grader is my daughter, and I was very happy for her. It wasn’t because of how quickly she got the hang of directing the Sphero robot’s heading, speed, and duration. It wasn’t because she was the first person in the group to successfully complete the maze. It wasn’t because she was the only girl that showed up to the event (okay, maybe that was part of it.)

I was mostly happy for her because she had fun. A six-year-old spent part of her Saturday evening at a Computer Science Education Week event, and she had fun!

The Hour of Code (https://hourofcode.com) is a global challenge to dedicate one hour for learning about computer science. No matter your age, your job, or your geography, there is something for everyone. Beginners might write their first “Hello world!” Advanced pupils might build their first mobile app. Kids might play with a robot or online game without even realizing they’re learning about computer science.

Our local Apple Store hosted several sessions during CS Education Week, including the Sphero maze challenge for kids.

As we were walking out my daughter was still beaming from ear to ear, proud of her accomplishment. The gears were turning in her head when I interrupted, “You know, this is kind of what Daddy does at work all day.”

She protested, “No fair! I want to do that when I’m done with school.”

And those words made me the happiest of all. A child – a female in what is still a male-dominated industry – found her spark.

She saw that computer science is approachable.

She taught herself in minutes something that she didn’t know existed an hour before.

She reminded herself that she can go toe to toe with anyone and succeed.

There are lessons in this story for adults, too. Many will see a glimmer of hope for future generations. They might see a future with more women paving the way in STEM fields. I saw that coding is much simpler than it was a decade ago.

The tools of the trade have abstracted and hidden the nuances of syntax from the programmer. Programming is becoming outcome-based. If you want to make a robot roll through a maze, figure out the best path. Drag and drop commands, and use knobs and sliders to adjust the parameters. If you can program a thermostat, you can probably program a robot.

Industries such as energy and utilities are challenged with an aging workforce, without a talent pipeline to readily replace the soon-to-be retirees. For an experienced worker with the domain understanding of how equipment or systems work, it should soon be easier than ever to train a computer to do the rote calculations. It can extract deeper levels of data, search for patterns, and allow the experts to focus on turning the insights into outcomes.

And all that from just one hour of code.


See the Sphero maze challenge in action:


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