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I’ve recently come across a very engaging platform through which children can learn to write computer programs. Little Wizard is an open source application designed to help students in the primary grades learn the concepts that are common in all programming languages, such as variables, loops and conditions. Students can do all this using the mouse. Let’s get up front and personal with Little Wizard.
The interface is WYSIWYG and rather delightful in its use of colorful, engaging images. At the top of the window is a menu bar and below this is a toolbar which, by default, has the Program button already depressed. This is referred to as program view. Below the toolbar is a row of tabs, called the palette. Below this is a row of colorful buttons used for writing computer programs by simply clicking on and dragging program elements represented by the buttons to the program grid below. This is where users write their programs. One really cool feature is that users can easily toggle views of their programs by clicking on buttons on the toolbar. Users can bounce from program view to world view to mixed view. World view presents the world grid which allows users to create and alter the wizard’s world. Mixed view displays both the world grid and the program grid. Integrated tooltips nicely enhance functionality.
So, what kind of programs can you write with Little Wizard? Looking at the tabs in the palette should give you a clue: Wizard, Math, Variables, Conditions and Loops and Other. Each tab has icons, which represent different program elements. Wizard controls functions such as movement of the Little Wizard icon. Math is where you find numbers and their operators. Variables provides the ability to add variables to your program. Conditions and Loops allows for conditions (e.g. if/else statements) and loops (e.g. repeat/until statements) to be placed in a program. Other allows users to assign positions or to prompt for user input. Using these tools, young programmers can make the wizard move, wait for user input or even change his world.
So what happens if you need help getting started? The Little Wizard Web site offers a free tutorial that will guide you through Little Wizard’s interface and to help you learn to use the building blocks of computer programming. Sample programs are provided that give Little Wizard the opportunity to show you what it can do. In no time, users can start developing and bringing to life their own ideas. Now stop reading this and download Little Wizard so you can see what your students will create.
Little Wizard is available for Linux and Microsoft Windows.
Kirillov, K. (n.d.). Little Wizard’s home page: tutorial. GNU General Public License. Retrieved from http://littlewizard.sourceforge.net/tutorial.html.
Kwadrans, M. (n.d.). Little wizard [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
ExpEYES is a low-cost open source framework of computer hardware and software that provides a means to perform low-cost science experiments using computers. ExpEYES offers formats designed for students from high school on. Let’s take a look at what can be done with ExpEYES.
According to its Web site, ExpEYES is a tool for learning science through exploration and experimentation, It includes integrated an oscilloscope and a signal generator and is powered via USB. ExpEYES offers 12-bit analog resolution, accurate measurements and is physically compact, for easy relocation. The software for ExpEYES is written in Python, an open source programming language. The online manual presents 50 (yes, fifty!) experiments that users can duplicate and, perhaps tha coolest feature of all, others can be easily created and added to the list.
So, from where does this marvel of scientific exploration come? ExpEYES was developed by the PHOENIX project of Inter-University Accelerator Centre (IUAC) of New Delhi. The long-term goal of this project is to make the equipment and methods used in research available to the student community. In science, experiments are performed, data is collected and analyzed. Conclusions drawn. The difference offered by ExpEYEs is the fact that the equipment is affordable.
So, what kind of experiments can a burgeoning scientist perform with ExpEYES? According to the ExpEYES User’s Manual, users can conduct experiments involving electricity, magnetism, electronics, sound, mechanics, optics, heat and computer programming. In terms of electricity, young scientists can perform experiments involving, among many other topics, voltage measurement, water conductivity and AC circuit study. Regarding electricity and magnetism, possible experiments include creating a simple AC generator and making an electromagnet. Some of the other experiments include amplitude and frequency modulation (electronics), sound velocity, using a stroboscope and hardware communication.
As potentially enriching as ExpEYES sounds, it is just one of several open source technology products created as part of the PHOENIX Project. If you’re interested in learning more about this and other opportunities to cultivate the scientists and engineers in your school, you should check out the ExpEYES Web site. Your students will thank you through their creations, if not through their words.
Thanks to Ajith Kumar for his support, the contributions that he provided and for suggested modifications.
ExpEYES is available for Linux and Microsoft Windows. It is available in Canada and the UK.
ExpEYES junior user’s manual: experiments for young engineers and scientists. n.d.). New Delhi: Inter-University Accelerator Centre. GNU General Public License. Retrieved from http://www.iuac.res.in/~elab/expeyes/Documents/eyesj-a4.pdf.
I’d like to focus on computer programming in this installment. Towards this end, I’d like to take a look at Pharo, a software development environment released under the MIT License (similar to GPL, see link below). Pharo provides a graphical way to utilize the Smalltalk programming language, the programming language used to write Dr. Geo, one of my favorite geometry exploration programs.
First of all, Pharo’s development team refers to Pharo as an “immersive programming environment.” What does this mean? Dictionary.com defines immersive as an adjective “noting or pertaining to digital technology or images that deeply involve one’s senses and may create an altered mental state.” Techopedia defines a programming environment as “a collection of procedures and tools for developing, testing and debugging an application or program.” Another name for such an environment is Integrated Development Environment or IDE. What this means is that Pharo provides a graphical interface for Smalltalk that is so intuitive, full-featured and graceful that it allows you to code without getting in the way.
Before I go further, I’d like to share a few things from Pharo’s mission statement. The Pharo team seeks to provide an accessible and innovative free, open source programming environment. These people strive to keep Pharo small, stable and equipped with excellent tools key for software development. Finally, Pharo seeks to foster a healthy ecosystem of contributors who strive to maintain and enhance this application.
Smalltalk is an object-oriented programming language, which, in layman’s terms means that it focuses more on objects and data rather than on commands, or actions, and logic. Keeping this in mind, Pharo is designed to be very straightforward to use and to provide prompt feedback. Pharo also includes an IDE (Integrated Development Environment), from which it draws its simplicity. Furthermore, Pharo offers a high level of diversity through a large library and a set of external applications. Pharo also includes strong support for business use in the form of organizations, such as the Pharo Industrial Consortium and an association of users, the Pharo Association.
I’d like to take a look at Pharo’s interface as this is key to Pharo’s ease of use. How often have you launched a new program with some trepidation, wondering with what will I be presented? How intuitive will the interface be? How long will it take me to figure out how to make this thing do what I need it to do? Arguably, Pharo’s interface, or lack thereof, is not just one of its strengths. It’s also aesthetically appealing. No need for a menu bar or tool bar, as Pharo relies on context-sensitive menus for its functionally. Simply click in the main window to open the World Menu, which is a general menu, from which you can select Workspace. A Workspace is like an artist’s sketchpad upon which you create your application. Once a Workspace has been opened, you can use contextual menus to perform desired tasks.
So, what’s the best thing about Pharo? It could be that it is free to download. It could be the number of free books about Pharo available online. It could also be the extensive support community. I leave it to you, the reader, to download and install Pharo. Then start using it and find out for yourself what you think is the best thing about Pharo.
Pharo is available for Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS and GNU/Linux.
Thanks to the people at Pharo for permission to use their screenshots for this article.
Black, A.P., Ducasse, S., Nierstrasz, O., Pollet, D., Cassou, D. & Denker, M. (2009). Pharo by example. Switzerland: Square Bracket Associates. Retrieved http://pharobyexample.org/versions/PBE1-2009-10-28.pdf
Immersive. (n.d.). In Dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/immersive?s=t
Pharo [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.
programming environment. (n.d.). Techopedia. Retrieved from https://www.techopedia.com/definition/16376/development-environment
While looking for a blog topic, I came across Colobot, a real-time, 3-D first-person strategy game that teaches users how to write computer programs. The pretense is an engaging one. The user is an astronaut who is equipped with robots. The user must use these robots (called “bots”) to make the planet he or she is currently on safe for human colonization (thus the name (“colony”+”robot”=”Colobot”)). In order to get the bots to accomplish tasks, the user must write the commands in CBOT, Colobot’s programming language, which is similar to the C or Java programming languages in its syntax.
Upon initial launch, the user is prompted to create an user account and character. The next screen presents the user with a switchboard interface that is graphically enhanced to make it appear similar to a control panel for a highly technical piece of equipment. Here users can configure Colobot and choose what kind of scenario they want to play out. The screenshot on the left shows this screen. There is a series of tutorials to help new users get accustomed to Colobot and the CBOT language, so this is what the author chose to do while experimenting with Colobot. The goals of each tutorial vary so the user can get a very clear idea of the missions that lay ahead.
Once the game has begun, the user finds him or herself in the role of the astronaut. A button in the upper left corner allows for users to toggle between being the astronaut and being one of the bots. To command a bot, the user must open the Program editor (shown in the screenshot at right). Here the user instructs the bot on what to do. Commands include movement, rotation, location scanning and object manipulation, among other things. Looking at the simple script that the author created, you can see that the bot has been instructed to turn ninety degrees left (to turn right, -90 would be used) and to fire its flame cannon at the spider. Clicking the Execute/stop button will verify that the code will work. Click on the OK button and the program is executed (see the screenshot below).
One of the great components of this software is the help feature integrated into the Program editor. The help provided includes both general assistance relating to the CBOT language as well as assistance writing a program for the given training scenario. In the first instructional scenario, users are even provided with the complete program to complete the mission. The author called upon this integrated help repeatedly while learning to use Colobot and found it to be very helpful. The screenshot below shows a typical help session.
In closing, I just want to say that this is an engaging and imaginative way to teach young people how write computer programs. This application is greatly enhanced by slick, colorful graphics and fun, realistic sound effects. When users learn to write complete programs (as opposed to doing things one step at a time as the author did) that’s when things really become visually appealing. It’s fun and fascinating to watch a bot complete a task and automatically go on to the next one like a, you guessed it, robot. Colobot is available on Linux and Microsoft Windows platforms.
Colobot [software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.