Huge props to kindergarten teachers

Teaching kindergarteners is like herding kittens
Teaching kindergarteners is like herding kittens

I’m completely exhausted. I had the pleasure today of explaining a little bit about computers and algorithms to some kindergarteners, and it just about wiped me out :-).

Timna Wyckoff (one of our biologists and mother of a kindergartener) arranged to have all the local kindergarten kids comes to the science building for 90 minutes to learn a little bit about science. They were divided up into groups of about twelve, and each group spent about 30 minutes at three of the six stations we’d set up.

I talked with them about their experience using computers at school (mostly “playing games”) and how the computer did things like draw pictures on the screen. (We determined that it wasn’t elves or fairies or tiny mice with little glasses and hats that took coffee breaks when you turned the computer off.) We then talked about how computers are machines, like their fridge or a car, and let them look inside a couple of old boxes destined for the scrap heap. This led to a bit on how computers are general purpose machines instead of single purpose machines (“Can you drive your fridge to the store?”), and how what the do is determined by the program they run. It turns out that computers are in fact machines specifically designed to follow lists of instructions, and programs are lists of instructions created by computer scientists that tell the computer how to do certain things (like draw dinosaurs on the screen). We then headed into a semi-tangential (but concrete for 5 and 6 year olds) discussion of recipes as a instructions, and people as machines for following those instructions. Finally, if and as time allowed (and it varied quite a bit across my three groups), they all got numbers, stood in a line, and pretended they were a computer running through the bubble sort algorithm. (Yeah, bubble sort. Don’t shoot me – it’s easy to run through with little kids.)

I spent a total of 90 minutes doing this three times, plus some setup at the beginning and tear down at the end, and I’m exhausted. If nothing else, this reinforced my belief that a good teacher of young kids is a real treasure. These are bright, enthusiastic kids, but they don’t always focus real well, and my short morning is enough to send me scurrying back to teaching adults. (To be honest, my students don’t always focus well, but they’re much less likely to distract everyone around them in the process.)

This was my first time doing this, and my little script was an amalgam of lots of ideas from KK, Timna, and WeatherGrrrl, and various students and alum responding to my request for ideas on Twitter. Many thanks to all of them for their ideas and feedback!

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