Thursday, April 09, 2015

Using Disney Infinity to Teach Kids to Code



When I was young, my family didn't own any computers. We had an Atari 2600 and a Nintendo NES, but we didn't own any personal computers. Thankfully, I had friends who did. I spent hours playing classic games like Bard's Tale with my friend Sean, and hours playing Maniac Mansion and Zak McCracken with my friend Ron.

Who am I kidding? I spent days playing these games, especially Bard's Tale. I still remember the answers to many of the BT riddles and have fond memories of the frustration of encountering our first "spinner."

Many of the schools I attended, and I attended 12 schools K-12, had computer labs. I spent a fair amount of time in computer labs fiddling around with Oregon Trail and Summer Games. All of this gaming led me to an interest in programming. My Junior and Senior year of High School I had a Zero Period class in computer programming where we learned Basic and used our knowledge to create our own programs. The first year was spent working on projects that the instructor designed, but during the second year students were supposed to design their own projects. My first computer program was a character creator for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but working with my friend Travis we designed character creation programs for Twilight 2000 and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles role playing games. These programming sessions often lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

My senior project was a piece of computer animation that featured a character walking up to a dragon and having the dragon breathe icy breath at the character as it ran away. It was a relatively simple animation in its results, but it took me weeks of one-hour class sessions to program. The dragon graphic was a bit map rendering of the white dragon from the Monster Manual and it took nigh on forever to enter the coordinates in the data file.

My program won second place at a computer programming competition at the University of Nevada. I think my dad still has the plaque I won, but the money I won was spent quickly.

As much as I liked computer programming as a "hobby," I stopped studying it formally after High School. I decided I wanted to be an attorney and began studying Political Science. This happened after my famous 4-year Semester off from Undergraduate education, something I don't recommend to anyone. I still love Political Science, and am working on a Ph.D. in it, but I have zero interest in becoming an attorney. Had I known as a wee lad that my interests would be when I was older, I'd have continued in Political Science and minored in Computer Science. This is especially irksome now that I'm in the Ph.D. program and am having to take time to refresh on my Calculus using MIT's excellent Single Variable Calculus class and the Khan Academy's World of Math refresher. I'm also taking time to learn the R programming language to make myself more marketable.



It's my frustration at never continuing to expand my programming instruction, even on a personal "hobbyist" level other than learning some HTML, that makes me so excited about the fact that Disney is partnering with Code.org to use Disney Infinity characters to teach young people how to write computer programs. While I believe that most of the "killer apps" of the future will be designed by creative people who have a broad "Liberal" education, I also believe that the ability to write code will be the future equivalent of being able to type. It's just something you have to be able to do in order to operate in the business environment.

I look forward to working through the code challenges with History and Mystery in the coming months. Maybe we'll even replicate some of those late night programming and playing sessions I loved so much in my youth.
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