Monday, May 28, 2012

Lauren Ipsum: Bringing Computer Science to Everyone

Have you ever heard of Userland? It's where you buy things with truly fair coins, deal in algorithms, and try to outwit logicians to gain access to the town of Symbol.  There's all this and more in Lauren Ipsum, "a story about computer science and other improbable things."

Winsome Losesome, a mentor of sorts to Laurie (used with permission)


The book is designed for kids aged 5-12 according to a recent WIRED article about the book and its author, Carlos Bueno.  From the same article:
Bueno — who “tested” the book on his nephews as he wrote it — says that programming should be a part of everyone’s education. “The first step to controlling your life in the modern world is understanding computers,” he says. [...] “Programming is a broadly applicable life skill,” he says. “Even if you’re not in front of a computer, you can use programming skills for problem solving.” Lauren Ipsum doesn’t include any computer code, but it does seek to instill the ideas behind computer programming.
This approach interests me greatly, as my current research centres on the connection between educational games and story.  Though not a game, I tried to read Lauren Ipsum through the lens of a beginner.  I found the story delightful not just from that perspective, but from my own position as a seasoned computer scientist as well.

I think that the target audience would love the story for its fun characters and their adventures.  But more importantly, I suspect they'd walk away with a boost in their computational thinking ability.  For instance, Laurie, the little girl who unexpectedly found herself lost in Userland, encountered the design and analysis of algorithms (called "poems") more than once.  She learned that even if the solution to a problem makes sense, it's not necessarily sensible.

Achilles and the Tortoise (used with permission)

The algorithms and other computer science topics are not explicitly named, but they are easily recognized by those with some experience.  This ended up being one of the most fun things for me: looking for concepts I knew, and seeing how they integrated into the story.  Computer science is artfully woven into every little bit, from Laurie's hometown being named Hamilton to little turtles carrying out instructions in Laurie's algorithmic poems (presumably a tribute to Logo / Turtle Graphics).

Even though kids won't know about all these hidden gems, that's not exactly the point.  It's about bringing computational vocabulary into the public domain.  And this, in my opinion, is a very important task.

So, no matter how old you are or how much experience with computers you have, I highly recommend you read this story.  And when you do, know that your purchase will result in a book being donated to a school or youth program through the Get One, Give One program.  You really can't go wrong.

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