Why Johnny can't program -- and how that can change

Today's schools are actually turning kids away from computer science, and it will take innovative programs to reverse the trend

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Repenning's program avoids this disheartening cycle in three important ways. First, it deemphasizes programming while still encouraging students to develop the logical thinking skills they'll need for more advanced studies. Second, it engages students by encouraging them to be creative and solve their own problems, rather than just repeating exercises dictated by their instructor. Third, and perhaps most important, students are rewarded for their efforts with an actual, concrete result they can relate to: a game.

The key to the program is AgentSheets, a unique software authoring environment developed at Colorado. AgentSheets combines a graphical, drag-and-drop user interface with a rule-based programming language to allow students to develop games and interactive applications of surprising sophistication. Projects built with AgentSheets incorporate not just code but images, sounds, and other multimedia.

The Scalable Game Design curriculum isn't just about enticing kids with entertaining exercises, either. Students start the program by building a look-alike of the classic arcade game Frogger, in which a player guides a cartoon frog across a street of busy traffic. By the end of the program, however, they've seen how the same tools can be used to build simulations that model forest fires or the spread of contagions. The idea is to show how computer tools can be built to address a variety of real-world needs, with results that are both functional and engaging.

Is there hope for tomorrow's programmers?
A key part of the program, the Scalable Game Design Summer Institute, invites middle school teachers from around the country to come to the university to gain firsthand experience with AgentSheets and the associated lesson plans. The hope is that they will then be able to return to their respective school districts and start the process with their own students. In the three years it's been in operation, the Summer Institute has attracted teachers from as far away as Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio, and Alaska.

There's just one problem. The Scalable Game Design curriculum was developed as part of the university's iDreams program -- a broader effort to teach computing to Colorado students -- which was funded by a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. That grant has now been expended, and this third year of the iDreams program will be its last. The AgentSheets tools will continue on, supplied by a for-profit company (of which Repenning is CTO), but for now there will be no more public funding to help schools take up the offer.

Meanwhile, as education budgets tighten around the country, schools and universities are being forced to reexamine their programs. Everywhere the specter of program cuts looms large, and mathematics and sciences are no exceptions. Recently, Western Washington University came under fire for suggesting that it may scupper its computer science program.

Confronted with such pressures, it's hard to imagine how innovative programs such as Dr. Repenning's can continue to flourish. But they should. Because if we don't encourage them to learn computing skills now, the next generation of graduates may find themselves left doing exactly what they're doing today: just playing video games.

This article, "Why Johnny can't program -- and how that can change," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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