Coding is an important skill in many fields, but it’s especially crucial for physicists: we use computers for just about everything now, and code is what makes computers work for us. Since many different kinds of physicists need to use computer modeling (or at the very least, Mathematica), it’s important that we all learn a little bit of basic coding when we’re starting out. Personally, I know next to zero code – I can use Mathematica (which is a computer algebra system) and LaTeX (which is typesetting software) but that is the extent of my knowledge. I realize that I’m going to have to learn at some point, though, and since I have some free time, I figured I’d start now.
I started with the Hour of Code, an online tutorial run through Code.org. In the Hour of Code, you complete a series of tasks in small games, moving a character through a maze using a set of commands formatted like puzzle pieces. It’s extremely basic, and you don’t even have to look at the actual text commands. In between tasks, there are short videos by people like “Bill: Created Microsoft.” Everything’s very basic, and it’s a nice little introduction (and, as a college student, I am almost always interested in free things, even if they are classes).
The first thing that I really like about the Hour of Code is that it’s accessible to everyone. There are a variety of different tutorials (I just did the regular beginner’s one), including ones for computers, other devices, and even “unplugged” tutorials for when students might not have a computer available. There are even tutorials for teachers on how to teach the Hour of Code. I did the whole hour and was not bored, and I could see a 10-year-old getting through the whole thing without much trouble, too. Even within the tutorial, there were options to view the code text or not, so it could be more or less intensive depending on the user’s preference. It’s a simple, non-intimidating way to get started in computer science, which is important, since computer science deals with more than its fair share of mathphobia and is a quickly skyrocketing business.
Even though the Hour of Code is extremely simple, it is a gateway. Code.org provides an abundance of resources for continued learning, including links to many other online computer science resources. This is, in my opinion, what many people are looking for when they take online courses – it’s an introduction and an invitation to learn more, without the pressure of a regular class but with the same guarantee that the information is legitimate. I am not that interested in computer science, honestly, but I think I probably will go back to Code.org and learn more. I like it. I wish there were more little gateway resources like this to get kids (and adults) started in learning new subjects. These resources encourage us, students of all ages, to become a little more well-rounded, and I believe that being a well-rounded student is useful and important. So, here is the link again: http://code.org/learn. I very much recommend trying out the Hour of Code.
Update: Apparently Chicago Public Schools are adding Computer Science classes, first as electives, and later maybe even to cover some graduation requirements. As long as it doesn’t take the place of other important basic skills (like writing and math), I think that’s a great idea.