The Joy of Programming

Last weekend I volunteered at Black Girls Code, an organization that encourages black girls to enter STEM fields. I was a teaching assistant for the “Build a Webpage in a Day” workshop, which basically covered some HTML and a tiny bit of CSS.

The problem is, HTML isn’t very interesting. After a few hours some of the girls started complaining about how this was boring and one told me, “I thought we’d be making games.” Nope, you’re formatting documents for six hours, enjoy.

HTML is also a terrible first language because it has all sorts of weird quirks. We were using Thimble so the girls could code on one side and see the results on the other, which is pretty cool. However, imagine that you’ve gone to this site and you’re seeing HTML for the first time:

Mozilla Thimble

Okay, now ignore the first line, that’s way too deep for us to get into. Now everything in the <html> tags is your webpage. Except the <head> isn’t actually displayed on your page. Except for the <title>, which isn’t a title on your page, it’s a title for your page. Then you see how the end tags have this extra, easily-missable, “/” character? That “closes” the tag. Got all that?

There were two groups and I was working with the younger one, 30 kids age 7-10, most of whom had to learn copy/paste and where and how to type the <, >, and / keys. Repeatedly. I didn’t mind, but boy did the kids get frustrated trying to type < and > and looking up a few seconds later to see “,” and “.”.

Most of the girls seemed to be most excited about showing their families what they had done after the event. To actually have a webpage to show, the girls had to log into Thimble and hit the “Publish” button. The head teachers told everyone to use IE, but they hadn’t actually run through the curriculum beforehand and so they didn’t realize that Thimble doesn’t let you log in from IE.

So all of the girls spent hours working on a webpage before I tried logging one in. I let the teacher know about the problem and then she tried to explain to 30 7-10-year-olds that they had to open another browser and cut-and-paste their work into it. Many of them ended up getting really frustrated, confused about which browser they had open, and never ended up logging in at all. At the end of the day, one of the girls on her way out was begging me to add one more thing to her webpage so it would look impressive when she showed her folks later. After she was gone, I went over to her computer and she wasn’t logged in. She had no webpage to show her folks at all.

If it was my workshop…

If I had to redesign this, I would have started with JavaScript. You can get a “web app” started in three lines:

alert("Hello, world")

It’s not actually correct HTML, but it gives you immediate feedback and you can start playing with it. And I got the distinct impression that these girls wanted something to play with.

To create a webpage they could show their folks and use later, I’d have the kids install Dropbox. Then they could save files to the Dropbox folder and Dropbox would serve them.

And I’d run through the curriculum before I taught the course.

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