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Thread: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

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    Default Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Hey guys,

    tl;dr version: How would you teach a 25 year old girl, who has never taken a programming course, the basics of programming? I'm afraid she won't stay interested in the traditional, text-only approach, so I think I'm going to use Processing, but I'm not exactly sure how just yet. You can skip the rest of this description if you don't want the background.

    I know this question has been discussed over and over again, and I've heard answers ranging from "it can't be done" to "use this specific language for these specific reasons". But I've been tasked with a challenge of sorts, and I wanted to get your feedback, as fellow Java programmers.

    A friend of mine (she graduated with a degree in psychology and is now going to grad school to learn how to teach kids how to read) recently asked that I teach her how to program ("teach me your nerds", is actually what she said). I think she pretty much just wants a conversational knowledge of programming, so that she can actually have a conversation with me about what I'm doing when I'm sitting in front of the computer for hours. I'm going to translate that and set a goal of teaching her the basics of setting up, writing, and running a program, as well as variables, if statements, and for loops. If she's still interested after that, I can think about more advanced topics.

    She knows the basics of how to work a computer, but somehow I don't think she'll stay interested if I teach her using traditional methods (notepad, command prompt, print out some squares or some prime numbers). Therefore, I think I've decided to use Processing, for the reasons outlined here: Processing. Basically, I'm going to start her out with an applet and a game loop, and have her work entirely in the paint method. I know there are pros and cons to that, but I really doubt I can keep a 25 year old girl interested in printing out the Fibonacci sequence.

    So, I guess I have two questions: first of all, is my thinking flawed? Is it possible to teach programming without going the traditional route? Should I stick with the basic text-only interface most of us started with? Or is it worth the extra effort to have interesting stuff on the screen to keep her interested?

    Secondly, how would you do this? I figure I'll have a couple hours before we both get bored with it, so how would you organize your lesson plan to fit everything in? And how do you really drill home the concepts? I can show her if statements and for loops, but how do I teach her how to actually use them?
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Interesting project. I'm not sure everyone can learn to program, just like not everyone can learn to write music for the piano or draw beautiful pictures. Either your brain works that way or it doesn't.
    Being pedantic helps. Attention to detail. Remembering lots of rules and conditions and states. Being way past 25 I have no concept of how that generation learns new stuff.

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Thanks for the insight, Norm. And don't worry, I am 25, and I still have no idea how this generation learns new stuff! I do have a vague notion that the "traditional" style of teaching how to program is going to give way to a more hands-on, instantaneous gratification type approach. It seems more effective to start "hello world" with something like Processing (which gives you an applet without any more work than a hello world program) or mobile development. Half the kids entering college probably have phones that run Java, why not teach them how to use that instead of forcing them to work from the command line? It would seem to keep kids more interested, which is important in a field that's so worried about enrollment and stereotypes keeping girls and minorities away. But I digress.

    I agree 100% that not everybody can learn everything, especially how to program, and especially how to think in an object-oriented way. But hopefully going the more visual and interactive route will ease some of the pain and frustration of getting into that mode of thinking. I'm not sure though. A lot of it is non-programming skills, too. Problem solving, breaking things down into steps, etc. I'm not sure I can teach that. But it should be fun to try!
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    If the purpose is to provide a flavor of programming, then the fun, visual approach should work.
    My personal opinion is that the better programmer has some understanding of what goes on under the covers and you get that with commandline & OS stuff. That's an assembler language programmer prejudice showing through.
    I see many students that get lost as soon as they move outside of their IDE.

    We were all non-programmers when we started. I started learning programming after I got out of the service at about your age.

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Oh yeah, I again absolutely agree with you. To be a good programmer, you must understand what's going on behind the IDE. But I think the first class should focus on the basics in a fun way- introduce variables, if statements, for loops, OO, etc in a visual, interactive way. Keep the students interested and give them something they can show their non-programmer friends. That's why I think Processing is perfect for this- it's pretty much a barebones IDE, without autocomplete or anything. It does hide compilation, deployment, and classpath management and whatnot though.

    In the grand scheme of things, I theorize that Processing should be used for a first programming class to keep interest up while the basics are introduced, then notepad and the command prompt for the second class as the more traditional problem solving things are done (as well as, here is what Processing was doing behind the scenes), then maybe move on to something like JCreator, and save eclipse for the upper-level classes only when a student has a firm grasp on compilation, deployment, classpath, etc.

    But that's mostly just a daydreamed theory. I'm certainly not an expert.
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Well you have a live one to test your theories on. I can't suggest which way would be better for your student. One on one should allow you to get pretty instant feedback on how it's going.
    Good luck to both of you.

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    I like the idea of using Processing because it does satisfy that instant gratification need. Another similar but less visual approach might be to use a language other than java that glosses over some of the more intricate details and allows you to concentrate on some fundamentals - Perl, Groovy, Python are the first to come to mind. Of course if you yourself don't know these that well then that complicates matters

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by Norm View Post
    Well you have a live one to test your theories on. I can't suggest which way would be better for your student. One on one should allow you to get pretty instant feedback on how it's going.
    Good luck to both of you.
    Yeah, part of the fun of this is that I get to test my theories. I'm in the very very beginning stages of becoming a teacher, and she's nearing the end, so we're both pretty into education. It should be interesting to see how it goes.
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by copeg View Post
    I like the idea of using Processing because it does satisfy that instant gratification need. Another similar but less visual approach might be to use a language other than java that glosses over some of the more intricate details and allows you to concentrate on some fundamentals - Perl, Groovy, Python are the first to come to mind. Of course if you yourself don't know these that well then that complicates matters
    Yeah, I've heard the advice to use languages like that too. I do have some experience with Python, but I haven't touched Perl or Groovy (or Ruby is the other one I've heard suggested). They might eventually be worth checking out, but for now I think I've forced myself into a Java/Processing corner.
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Let us know your findings. I'm trying to do part time tutoring at a local junior college with mostly older adults taking a C++ course. No students yet this year but I had about a dozen last year.
    Having more than one approach to teaching programming concepts would be useful.

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by Norm View Post
    Let us know your findings. I'm trying to do part time tutoring at a local junior college with mostly older adults taking a C++ course. No students yet this year but I had about a dozen last year.
    Having more than one approach to teaching programming concepts would be useful.
    That sounds awesome. I'll definitely keep you updated, but I probably won't get to try this out until later this month (after finals and whatnot are done for both of us). I would guess you'll start to be busier around finals time too! Haha
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by KevinWorkman View Post
    Yeah, I've heard the advice to use languages like that too. I do have some experience with Python, but I haven't touched Perl or Groovy (or Ruby is the other one I've heard suggested). They might eventually be worth checking out, but for now I think I've forced myself into a Java/Processing corner.
    For what its worth, groovy is pretty much java (I've got a Blog post here describing some of it). You can write a groovy scripts in full java code, or use the shorthand methods and classes, then compile into classes accessible though java. Or course because of this, its probably more complicated to a novice because its got lower level and higher level aspects to it. I'd say go for the Processing approach - I'd be very interested in how it works out, as it sounds like a great experience - I always considered, under the proper condition, teaching as much a learning experience for the teacher as it is the student
    Last edited by copeg; December 1st, 2011 at 10:14 PM.

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    @Kevin: Yes, as we all know that Programming is just an art but you can teach and enthuse someone to this art by the way you teach or tell. I will recommend you, not to jump deep inside the processing so early. What i will suggest you is, start from the basics, give her real life examples, try to solve them manually in simple english(pseudocode) and teach her the syntax related to that before giving such example. You will see, she will auto think about solving that problem programatically. But force her to do this manually first and don't let her try on the computer as most programmers just do hit and trial, encourage her to do on paper, ask her to do a dry run of the program she has written, and tell her the mistakes. Don't force her to write efficient programs first, infact just let her write program that will at least compile and do what she wants.
    I hope this would help though. :-)

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by copeg View Post
    For what its worth, groovy is pretty much java (I've got a Blog post here describing some of it). You can write a groovy scripts in full java code, or use the shorthand methods and classes, then compile into classes accessible though java. Or course because of this, its probably more complicated to a novice because its got lower level and higher level aspects to it. I'd say go for the Processing approach - I'd be very interested in how it works out, as it sounds like a great experience - I always considered, under the proper condition, teaching as much a learning experience for the teacher as it is the student
    I'll definitely have to check Groovy out then. I've been trying to expand my Java horizons, and I've been on a Java EE kick lately. Maybe when (if) that's done, I'll play with Groovy. Thanks for the reminder.
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mr.777 View Post
    @Kevin: Yes, as we all know that Programming is just an art but you can teach and enthuse someone to this art by the way you teach or tell. I will recommend you, not to jump deep inside the processing so early. What i will suggest you is, start from the basics, give her real life examples, try to solve them manually in simple english(pseudocode) and teach her the syntax related to that before giving such example. You will see, she will auto think about solving that problem programatically. But force her to do this manually first and don't let her try on the computer as most programmers just do hit and trial, encourage her to do on paper, ask her to do a dry run of the program she has written, and tell her the mistakes. Don't force her to write efficient programs first, infact just let her write program that will at least compile and do what she wants.
    I hope this would help though. :-)
    I suppose I could try to get her thinking about how she solves a problem, but I think translating that into code (or even into pseudocode) is one of the harder skills non-programmers have to pick up. Going from a problem (print out the primes) they can do on paper to a list of steps they're doing inside their brain (pseudocode) is hard enough. But then to take that and translate it into syntax (even after seeing all of the syntax in action) is even harder.

    I think I'm going to take my approach from the opposite direction. I'll show her the absolute basics, explain how a program works (hello world), then move on to some of the simple examples using variables (drawing circles when the mouse moves is the first processing tutorial example). From there I can introduce if statements, for loops, etc. Then I can say "okay, you know how to do this using this.. how would you change it slightly to do something a little different?" and work through the problems that way. Does that sound reasonable?
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    If you are looking for a practical application as an enticement, my wife mentioned that you can do some "programming" in Excel. Like if tests and value comparisions. We use those very frequently in our spreadsheet work.

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by Norm View Post
    If you are looking for a practical application as an enticement, my wife mentioned that you can do some "programming" in Excel. Like if tests and value comparisions. We use those very frequently in our spreadsheet work.
    It's funny you mention that, because I actually have been struggling to come up with an applicable use of programming for her. Having something that I can point to and say "and this is how programming is useful and interesting in your real life" will make the process a lot easier.

    Unfortunately, I don't think she uses Excel for anything. The best project I can think of (she's going to school to learn how to teach kids how to read) is a little game for kids that shows them a word, and they have a certain amount of time to read it out loud. They either get some points for reading the word in time, or the word fades away and another one shows up (and the word they missed maybe comes back later for fewer points or something). I'm not sure though.
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by KevinWorkman View Post
    I suppose I could try to get her thinking about how she solves a problem, but I think translating that into code (or even into pseudocode) is one of the harder skills non-programmers have to pick up. Going from a problem (print out the primes) they can do on paper to a list of steps they're doing inside their brain (pseudocode) is hard enough. But then to take that and translate it into syntax (even after seeing all of the syntax in action) is even harder.

    I think I'm going to take my approach from the opposite direction. I'll show her the absolute basics, explain how a program works (hello world), then move on to some of the simple examples using variables (drawing circles when the mouse moves is the first processing tutorial example). From there I can introduce if statements, for loops, etc. Then I can say "okay, you know how to do this using this.. how would you change it slightly to do something a little different?" and work through the problems that way. Does that sound reasonable?
    Yeah i guess you know her much better, so it's all upon you. Well, it's a fact that methods varies person to person and may be she will get more interested with your planned methodology. We can simply suggest according to our experiences. Good Luck Kevin and i hope you will get success in this.

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    There is a program for teaching Java by playing, but I can't recall its name. Something like Jbot, Jrobot or Jroket. Each person has a robot or ship(what ever it was I can't recall), and can customize it. building a ship is easy but building a good one is hard. You use Java for the programming. Anyway here are some similar programs: Young Developer Learning Path

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Ah here it is! Robocode Home

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mr.777 View Post
    Yeah i guess you know her much better, so it's all upon you. Well, it's a fact that methods varies person to person and may be she will get more interested with your planned methodology. We can simply suggest according to our experiences. Good Luck Kevin and i hope you will get success in this.
    Oh yeah, and I definitely appreciate the feedback. Thinking about what everyone is saying is helping me shape my approach, so thanks very much!
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by Melawe View Post
    Ah here it is! Robocode Home
    That is really neat, and I wasn't aware of Oracle's Young Developer Path. Cool stuff! Once I get some spare time, I'll have to try my hand at Robocode.
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by KevinWorkman View Post
    That is really neat, and I wasn't aware of Oracle's Young Developer Path. Cool stuff! Once I get some spare time, I'll have to try my hand at Robocode.
    Yea, it looks good, id like to try it sometime too. Four more chapters left for me to finish learning Java, perhaps then I'll be able to try it. I think you use eclipse? you can use Robocode within eclipse, didn't try it to know how it works though.

    How did teaching your friend go?

    -Mel

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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by Melawe View Post
    Yea, it looks good, id like to try it sometime too. Four more chapters left for me to finish learning Java, perhaps then I'll be able to try it. I think you use eclipse? you can use Robocode within eclipse, didn't try it to know how it works though.

    How did teaching your friend go?

    -Mel
    What book are you reading? Warning: you will *never* be finished learning Java, no matter how long you've been doing it! So I wouldn't be too strict about setting milestones before jumping into something (as long as that something isn't too complicated).

    I do use eclipse, and I bet it's pretty easy to get some examples from Robocode set up and running in it. That might not be the way to go for a student, but for somebody looking to dive in, it might be fine.

    And I won't get to try my experiment until later this month, after we both finish finals and stuff.
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    Default Re: Teaching a Non-Programmer How to Program?

    Quote Originally Posted by KevinWorkman View Post
    What book are you reading? Warning: you will *never* be finished learning Java, no matter how long you've been doing it! So I wouldn't be too strict about setting milestones before jumping into something (as long as that something isn't too complicated).
    I use Sams Teach your self Java in 24 hours, 5th Edition. Yea, a look at the API is enough to tell that there is a lot the book can't cover(at least with out being tedious and two thousand pages long ). I have no current milestones, only a java programming group and studying the API. I also have been planing on making a database like program with info about animals.

    Quote Originally Posted by KevinWorkman View Post
    I do use eclipse, and I bet it's pretty easy to get some examples from Robocode set up and running in it. That might not be the way to go for a student, but for somebody looking to dive in, it might be fine.

    And I won't get to try my experiment until later this month, after we both finish finals and stuff.
    I have read somewhere that is falls in the line of programs like Bluej, GreenFoot, etc. I don't know how it would work though. I'd think you would be using more of Robocodes packages rather than Java's packages, in turn only learning the syntax.

    -Mel

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