Secret Coders: kids' comic awesomely teaches the fundamentals of computer science

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Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes’s Secret Coders is volume one in a new series of ingenious graphic novels for young kids that teach the fundamentals of computer science.

After all these years later and LOGO refuses TO DIE!


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aw, man. I love the LOGO reference… “what does PD mean?” ha!

Hey, Logo’s basically a LISP. Probably the most appropriate language for teaching kids…

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Indeed, LOGO is very much the precursor to Scratch, which is an excellent programming language for kids.

For example, this game is coded thus:

However, as fun as playing with LOGO on the computer is, I’m struggling to get the same sense of fun from following code line-by-line in comic book format…

If you want to teach kids to enjoy programming (also using LOGO), how about trying the RobotTurtles boardgame?

Mine, admittedly, has been still in the closet since the KickStarted ended two years ago, but I figure my two-year-old isn’t quite there yet.

When I was a kid, we learned to program by poking individual machine code bytes into memory and… Okay, I exaggerate. That Scratch looks pretty cool.

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That screenshot would be complete information overload for many kids, but seeing the concept spelled out in the comic would be within their ability range.
The truth is that as with physics and maths, computer science is based on a core of “hard” ideas, and we who have been in the business have forgotten that those ideas were once hard. At some point you have to remove the pretty GUI and the bright colours and understand the core concepts, or you will never amount to more than a “web designer”.

Do you? I did. Actually that isn’t quite true; I started off with an HP programmable calculator, which teaches you all the basic constructs. And then I found myself working on embedded machine code, in a day when you had LEDs on the address and data bus and could single step through instructions on a static cmos processor. It was fun…and not a GUI in sight.

Scratch has little to do with the “bright colors” and absolutely does teach “hard concepts.” You learn to program by doing. I’m not sure why you think this comic is any better at teaching “hard concepts” that actually using those commands yourself.

The board game, as well, is doing, and I’d similarly say it will teach “hard concepts” better than a comic.

I started out with Commodore BASIC at the computer lab in my middle school. We started noticing that there was some kind of mysterious “sub system” that you could drop into if you invoked the “SYS” command, and that there appeared to be a whole 'nother kind of language under the hood. We learned we had found the machine language “monitor” (which traps on BRK instructions, and allows display and disassembly of memory) and that we should never ever use it EVER because it will break the computer.

Needless to say, tell a bunch of 12 year olds “never do this” and we used our new 6502 skills to break the (admittedly weak) copy-protection on all the computer lab’s software. When I finally got a C-64 for my birthday, it was like a little magic treasure box – I spent hours and hours unraveling its mysteries. For Xmas, my mom bought me the Commodore Assembler and Compute’s C-64 Memory Map book which was like the Aztec Codex and the Rosetta Stone rolled into one happy tome.

Once they had tried to sit me down in front of LOGO but I learned very little. I guess every kid learns differently, so my initial reaction might’ve been a bit harsh.


I’ve played around with Scratch a bit now, and off the bat it covers some very modern concepts like object-oriented design and event driven applications – stuff I spent many many years trying to reconcile with my CS education which at the time was fixated with developing algorithms using command line tools (at a school where most of the undergrads were urged to own Macs).

Granted, most software jobs today require BOTH the higher level stuff AND the CS aptitude.

I am pleased for you that you had such an instructive experience. Coding at that level is doing computer engineering - it is really engaging with the hardware as well as the low level software and if you are capable of doing it, I am sure it has big benefits that extend outside computing, in terms of being able to understand and construct models of how things work.
The generation before ours used to tinker with cars and learn technical skills that way. I am sure that the current generation is learning, but it seems to get more and more abstract. Still, that is progress, for those of us fortunate to live in advanced societies.

Because I spent eight years of my career teaching, in a nutshell. I was specifically writing about getting across the introductory concepts. Learning by doing is essential beyond a certain point, but not everybody can work that way. Often it is necessary to lead the pupil into understanding - the very word “education” derives from the Latin root word that means to lead or guide. Illustrating things step by step and reducing abstract concepts to homely examples is an important part of pedagogy.

PD is Pen Down. The original logo turtle was an actual drawing robot. With a pen in actual real life. You could move the pen up and down to draw or not draw as desired.


Gene Yang came and did a reading at our Library in Chapel Hill yesterday. It was pretty amazing watching how kids’ minds became much more receptive to the idea of coding when he started his talk by casually dropping that he writes for Airbender and Superman.

uh, yeah, I know that. That’s why I found that line humorous…

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