The role of technology has increased immensely in recent years. Computers have become an important part of almost every area of life, making coding a valuable skill for kids and teens to learn.
Learning programming requires a different set of techniques than other subjects like science, reading, or writing. Below are five ways to learn how to start coding, with experience and insight from Sphero experts and partners working in the field.
1. Find a Reason Coding Is Important to Your Students
This may not seem to be a way to learn how to code, but according to Rabia Aslam, a Firmware Engineer at Sphero, when students have a reason to learn, it will provide a guide for what type of technologies they will need to get started. There are many places a student could start when learning to code, simply because everything runs on computers and every computer runs on code. Being interested in the project they are working on will contribute a lot to the learning process.
"If someone tells me they would like to learn how to code, I would want them to first think about why they think coding is important to learn and what they intend to do with their new skills. This will definitely help them stay focused and retain the knowledge," Aslam said. "For me, personally, coding is an art form. I really enjoy working through the process of developing a piece of code as much as I like seeing the end result."
So the first step in learning to code should be discovering why you want to write code. If it is building apps or video games, the journey will be different than if it were robotics. For Ricky Mason, the founder of KY AgriTech & BrainSTEM university, you need to "figure out what you're passionate about first, then figure out where coding fits into that."
2. Choose a Language You're Interested in and Stick With It
There are many different types of coding languages out there. While it is true that learning a new language is simple for experienced programmers because the skills they learned from one language can be transferable to another, beginners should focus on learning one language. This is also why it's best to have a goal for learning programming, says Aslam, because that will help you choose the programming language to learn.
"If your goal is to write embedded applications for a hardware device, starting with the C programming language makes sense. If you want to create a website from scratch, learning about HTML and CSS seems like a good place to start. If your goal is to create a mobile application, then identify what platform you want to write for (i.e., iOS, Android, etc.) and then choose the language that goes with that platform," she said.
A beginning coder should stick to that first language until they know the core concepts of programming, like loops, function calls, and flow control. Once they know the basics, they will be able to identify the same concepts in other languages, and their knowledge will be transferable. Switching languages too early can lead to confusion and erode the student’s confidence.
3. Work on Real Projects
While everyone who learns to code has to start simply with "Hello World"-type applications that teach them how to use the language and environment in which they are coding, it is important to give students real tasks. Abstract examples will only go so far in helping a student learn. Giving a coding student an authentic task will keep them engaged and give them the opportunity to apply their knowledge to something concrete.
It may even help to provide students with software libraries or source code, so they are closer to their goal of a finished project. Most modern software written these days is done with the help of third-party libraries, and it is rare to build anything from scratch. Providing a head-start to coding students will take them to the exciting part of learning to code earlier. And if they are interested in the low-level aspects of their project, they can revisit them.
4. Learn From Peers
There are many ways a beginning coder can learn from their peers, and it is one of the best ways to absorb coding principles. Passion for code is infectious, and working with other coders on the same problem or just talking about coding will lead to more motivation to try new things.
One way to do this is using pair programming, where two coders use one computer. One uses the keyboard and does all the typing. The other comments on the code and offers suggestions. And they switch roles often during the day. Both coders gain valuable insights through this exercise by explaining their coding process and understanding the process of another coder.
Hackathons are a great way for people with coding experience to learn from peers with a side of friendly competition. New coders can attend conferences to pick up knowledge and meet other coders. Meetups are similar to conferences, but are typically local, less formal, and held more often. Local meetups are great spots to find a potential mentor.
5. Choose a Learning Platform That Offers Feedback and Consistency
Learning anything is made easier and more efficient with guidance. When it comes to finding educational materials that will teach you how to code, you will find unlimited resources. You can learn from coding blogs, YouTube videos, online courses, and more. But it can be hard to find a direction for learning on your own. Coding is a complex topic, and the right learning platform can make a big difference.
"My top advice would be to choose a learning platform that offers consistency and feedback on your work. Consistency will allow you to build a relationship with your instructor and peers, giving you a community of people that can help you with your programs," said Mason. "Feedback is critical to know how you can improve your skills. Learning online is accessible, but using a consistent curriculum with valuable feedback will improve your learning experience."
Steps to Coding Skills
Coding is an important skill to have in the modern world and should be fostered in young learners. There are many ways a student can learn how to code, but it starts with why. Finding the student's passion will help them choose a programming language that they can stick with until they become an expert, find real-world projects they are excited to work on and find peers that will support them on their journey.
To further inspire your students who are interested in learning how to code, discover Sphero’s programmable robots and STEAM kits and computer science curriculum designed to provide fun, hands-on STEM learning.
About the Experts
Rabia studied Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo and received her Master’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Toronto. Her professional experience spans multiple disciplines of engineering, from software development to product design.
Rabia has been a firmware engineer at Sphero since 2016 working on a number of projects including Sphero RVR, the go anywhere, do anything robot, and the latest Sphero release, indi, a screenless learning robot designed for kids 4+.
Ricky studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Kentucky, during which he interned with NASA and the Department of Defense. He earned a Master’s in Electrical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University while working for the CIA in Washington, DC.
Currently, Ricky is the founder of several startups including BrainSTEM University, a STEM education program for students and adults; Kentucky Agritech, a company that provides IOT, apps, and remote sensing technology for agriculture; and Jack-Mason Wealth Group, a private equity firm. Find Ricky on social media @rickymason502. #keepmakingmoves