With just a few keystrokes Vincent Blanchard programmed a computer, at the Maine Digital Festival, to draw a circle and a three-dimensional cube, though the 11-year-old confessed to the workshop instructor Jon Janelle he wasn’t entirely sure how he managed to draw the cube.
“It took a lot of coding,” the Augusta boy said. “A lot of thinking, too. Actually I don’t know how I got this, to be honest.”
Janelle, a software engineer for Tyler Technologies and a former teacher, said that’s okay, and assured Vincent that there is a lot of trial and error, and trying things you don’t know how to do, and even doing things without really knowing how you did them, in coding, even for adults whose career is in programming.
“I, all the time, if I don’t know how to do something, I just give it a shot,” said Janelle. “If it doesn’t work, it’s okay. We do this a lot in programming. That’s how you learn what things do. You just try stuff.”
Janelle explained the basics of what they needed to do but let the half-dozen middle-school-aged students taking part in the workshop Saturday figure out the details themselves, and also gave them time to just try out the programming language they were using, Python, which allows users to draw, and animate, pictures.
Vincent managed to draw what looked like a circle, without that particular skill being shown to him, by typing in commands and numbers to make the program draw a line making 180 separate turns on his laptop screen. His parents, Vanessa and Zach, also took part, though their drawings, for the most part, appeared to be less elaborate than his.
Vincent said he’d already done some coding before taking part in Saturday’s workshop on how to code using the Python programming language, making video games. He said he also likes to tweak codes, to see what changing them does to the program. He said he’d consider, when he grows older, seeking a career programming computers.
Jason Judd, program director for Project>Login, a nonprofit program of Educate Maine which seeks to interest, and educate, Maine students in computer science and programming, said the Maine Digital Festival also has the same goal, to instill an interest and knowledge in computers in Maine students.
“We believe every student in Maine should have access to computer science,” said Judd, who added that less than 30 percent of Maine schools have computer science programs for their students. “We see it as a foundational subject, like math or reading. We want to make sure students are learning to program and learning to code, so kids understand they can tell a computer what to do. Part of that is showing kids computer science is accessible, and enjoyable.”
Toward that goal of showing that coding can be fun, even for students as young as kindergarteners, Saturday’s festival at the Augusta Civic Center included activities for young students including assembling Code-a-pillars, caterpillar-like devices which kids assemble out of individual pieces, each of which represents a different command, such as to go straight or turn left or right.
By altering their placement of the individual sections, youths change the path the Code-a-pillars take when they are set loose to roam on their own.
Saturday students from the math club at the University of New England setup an obstacle course of fake mushrooms, with a basket full of prizes in the corner behind them. Kids who successfully assembled, or coded, their Code-a-pillars to make it through the maze of mushrooms to the basket got a prize. Jennifer Fatula, an assistant lecturer at the Biddeford college, said many youngsters were able to do so.
Shawn Pilling, a UNE student volunteering at the event, said it’s one of the club’s biggest events of the year and he and his fellow students wanted to help get young students interested in computer coding at an early age. He said he didn’t do any coding until he was 19 years old.
The Maine Digital Festival, which Judd said drew about 120 students, was held on the second floor of the Augusta Civic Center as, below in the auditorium, the Maine FIRST LEGO League state championship robotics competition took place. Students, who were between 9 and 14 years old, in that competition programmed robots they assembled as teams to complete a variety of scored tasks, primarily involving moving objects on a gaming table.