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Linda Liukas: A delightful way to teach kids about computers

October 9, 2015

Computer code is the next universal language, and its syntax will be limited only by the imaginations of the next generation of programmers. Linda Liukas is helping to educate problem-solving kids, encouraging them to see computers not as mechanical, boring and complicated but as colorful, expressive machines meant to be tinkered with. In this talk, she invites us to imagine a world where the Ada Lovelaces of tomorrow grow up to be optimistic and brave about technology and use it to create a new world that is wonderful, whimsical and a tiny bit weird.

Linda Liukas - Programmer, storyteller and illustrator
Linda Liukas wants to create a more diverse and colorful world of technology, starting with the poetry of code. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Code is the next universal language.
00:12
In the seventies, it was punk music
that drove the whole generation.
00:16
In the eighties, it was probably money.
00:20
But for my generation of people,
00:23
software is the interface
to our imagination and our world.
00:25
And that means that we need
00:30
a radically, radically
more diverse set of people
00:32
to build those products,
00:35
to not see computers as mechanical
and lonely and boring and magic,
00:37
to see them as things
that they can tinker
00:42
and turn around and twist,
and so forth.
00:44
My personal journey into the world
of programming and technology
00:47
started at the tender age of 14.
00:51
I had this mad teenage crush
on an older man,
00:54
and the older man in question
just happened to be
00:58
the then Vice President
of the United States, Mr. Al Gore.
01:00
And I did what every single
teenage girl would want to do.
01:05
I wanted to somehow
express all of this love,
01:08
so I built him a website, it's over here.
01:10
And in 2001, there was no Tumblr,
01:13
there was no Facebook,
there was no Pinterest.
01:16
So I needed to learn to code
01:18
in order to express
all of this longing and loving.
01:20
And that is how programming
started for me.
01:23
It started as a means of self-expression.
01:26
Just like when I was smaller,
I would use crayons and legos.
01:28
And when I was older, I would use
guitar lessons and theater plays.
01:32
But then, there were other things
to get excited about,
01:37
like poetry and knitting socks
01:40
and conjugating French irregular verbs
01:43
and coming up with make-believe worlds
01:46
and Bertrand Russell and his philosophy.
01:48
And I started to be one of those people
01:51
who felt that computers
are boring and technical and lonely.
01:53
Here's what I think today.
01:57
Little girls don't know that they
are not supposed to like computers.
01:59
Little girls are amazing.
02:03
They are really, really good
at concentrating on things
02:05
and being exact and they ask
amazing questions like,
02:09
"What?" and "Why?"
and "How?" and "What if?"
02:12
And they don't know that they
are not supposed to like computers.
02:15
It's the parents who do.
02:19
It's us parents who feel
02:21
like computer science
is this esoteric, weird science discipline
02:22
that only belongs to the mystery makers.
02:27
That it's almost as far removed
from everyday life
02:31
as, say, nuclear physics.
02:34
And they are partly right about that.
02:36
There's a lot of syntax
and controls and data structures
02:39
and algorithms and practices,
02:42
protocols and paradigms in programming.
02:45
And we as a community,
we've made computers smaller and smaller.
02:48
We've built layers and layers
of abstraction on top of each other
02:52
between the man and the machine
02:57
to the point that we no longer
have any idea how computers work
02:58
or how to talk to them.
03:01
And we do teach our kids
how the human body works,
03:04
we teach them how
the combustion engine functions
03:06
and we even tell them
that if you want to really be an astronaut
03:10
you can become one.
03:13
But when the kid comes to us and asks,
03:14
"So, what is a bubble sort algorithm?"
03:16
Or, "How does the computer know
what happens when I press 'play,'
03:19
how does it know which video to show?"
03:23
Or, "Linda, is Internet a place?"
03:25
We adults, we grow oddly silent.
03:28
"It's magic," some of us say.
03:32
"It's too complicated," the others say.
03:34
Well, it's neither.
03:38
It's not magic and it's not complicated.
03:39
It all just happened
really, really, really fast.
03:42
Computer scientists built
these amazing, beautiful machines,
03:46
but they made them
very, very foreign to us,
03:49
and also the language we speak
to the computers
03:51
so that we don't know
how to speak to the computers anymore
03:53
without our fancy user interfaces.
03:56
And that's why no one recognized
03:59
that when I was conjugating
French irregular verbs,
04:00
I was actually practicing
my pattern recognition skills.
04:03
And when I was excited about knitting,
04:06
I actually was following
a sequence of symbolic commands
04:09
that included loops inside of them.
04:12
And that Bertrand Russell's lifelong quest
04:14
to find an exact language
between English and mathematics
04:16
found its home inside of a computer.
04:20
I was a programmer, but no one knew it.
04:23
The kids of today, they tap, swipe
and pinch their way through the world.
04:26
But unless we give them tools
to build with computers,
04:31
we are raising only consumers
instead of creators.
04:34
This whole quest
led me to this little girl.
04:38
Her name is Ruby, she is six years old.
04:41
She is completely fearless,
imaginative and a little bit bossy.
04:43
And every time
I would run into a problem
04:47
in trying to teach
myself programming like,
04:50
"What is object-oriented design
or what is garbage collection?",
04:52
I would try to imagine how a six-year-old
little girl would explain the problem.
04:56
And I wrote a book about her
and I illustrated it
05:00
and the things
Ruby taught me go like this.
05:03
Ruby taught me that you're
not supposed to be afraid
05:05
of the bugs under your bed.
05:08
And even the biggest of the problems
05:09
are a group of tiny problems
stuck together.
05:11
And Ruby also introduced
me to her friends,
05:15
the colorful side of the Internet culture.
05:18
She has friends like the Snow Leopard,
05:21
who is beautiful but doesn't want
to play with the other kids.
05:22
And she has friends like the green robots
that are really friendly but super messy.
05:25
And she has friends like Linux the penguin
05:30
who's really ruthlessly efficient,
but somewhat hard to understand.
05:32
And idealistic foxes, and so on.
05:36
In Ruby's world, you learn
technology through play.
05:39
And, for instance, computers
are really good at repeating stuff,
05:43
so the way Ruby would teach
loops goes like this.
05:46
This is Ruby's favorite dance move,
it goes, "Clap, clap, stomp, stomp
05:49
clap, clap and jump."
05:52
And you learn counter loops
by repeating that four times.
05:54
And you learn while loops
by repeating that sequence
05:58
while I'm standing on one leg.
06:01
And you learn until loops
by repeating that sequence
06:03
until mom gets really mad.
06:06
(Laughter)
06:08
And most of all, you learn
that there are no ready answers.
06:09
When coming up with the curriculum
for Ruby's world,
06:14
I needed to really ask the kids
how they see the world
06:16
and what kind of questions they have
06:20
and I would organize
play testing sessions.
06:22
I would start by showing the kids
these four pictures.
06:25
I would show them a picture of a car,
06:28
a grocery store, a dog and a toilet.
06:30
And I would ask, "Which one of these
do you think is a computer?"
06:33
And the kids would be
very conservative and go,
06:37
"None of these is a computer.
06:40
I know what a computer is:
06:41
it's that glowing box
06:43
in front of which mom or dad
spends way too much time."
06:44
But then we would talk
06:48
and we would discover
that actually, a car is a computer,
06:50
it has a navigation system inside of it.
06:52
And a dog -- a dog
might not be a computer,
06:55
but it has a collar
06:58
and the collar might have
a computer inside of it.
06:59
And grocery stores, they have
so many different kinds of computers,
07:01
like the cashier system
and the burglar alarms.
07:05
And kids, you know what?
07:08
In Japan, toilets are computers
07:10
and there's even hackers who hack them.
07:12
(Laughter)
07:14
And we go further
07:16
and I give them these little stickers
with an on/off button on them.
07:17
And I tell the kids,
"Today you have this magic ability
07:21
to make anything in this room
into a computer."
07:24
And again, the kids go,
07:28
"Sounds really hard,
I don't know the right answer for this."
07:29
But I tell them, "Don't worry,
07:32
your parents don't know
the right answer, either.
07:34
They've just started
to hear about this thing
07:36
called The Internet of Things.
07:39
But you kids,
you are going to be the ones
07:41
who are really going to live up in a world
where everything is a computer."
07:43
And then I had this little girl
who came to me
07:47
and took a bicycle lamp
07:49
and she said, "This bicycle lamp,
if it were a computer,
07:51
it would change colors."
07:55
And I said, "That's a really good idea,
what else could it do?"
07:57
And she thinks and she thinks,
08:00
and she goes, "If this bicycle lamp
were a computer,
08:02
we could go on a biking trip
with my father
08:06
and we would sleep in a tent
08:09
and this biking lamp
could also be a movie projector."
08:10
And that's the moment I'm looking for,
08:15
the moment when the kid realizes
08:18
that the world
is definitely not ready yet,
08:19
that a really awesome way
of making the world more ready
08:22
is by building technology
08:25
and that each one of us
can be a part of that change.
08:27
Final story, we also built a computer.
08:31
And we got to know the bossy CPU
and the helpful RAM and ROM
08:34
that help it remember things.
08:38
And after we've assembled
our computer together,
08:40
we also design an application for it.
08:43
And my favorite story is this little boy,
08:45
he's six years old
08:47
and his favorite thing in the world
is to be an astronaut.
08:49
And the boy, he has
these huge headphones on
08:52
and he's completely immersed
in his tiny paper computer
08:55
because you see, he's built his own
08:58
intergalactic planetary
navigation application.
09:00
And his father, the lone astronaut
in the Martian orbit,
09:04
is on the other side of the room
09:08
and the boy's important mission
09:09
is to bring the father
safely back to earth.
09:11
And these kids are going to have
a profoundly different view of the world
09:15
and the way we build it with technology.
09:19
Finally, the more approachable,
the more inclusive,
09:22
and the more diverse
we make the world of technology,
09:26
the more colorful and better
the world will look like.
09:29
So, imagine with me, for a moment,
09:33
a world where the stories we tell
09:36
about how things get made
don't only include
09:39
the twentysomething-year-old
Silicon Valley boys,
09:42
but also Kenyan schoolgirls
and Norwegian librarians.
09:44
Imagine a world where
the little Ada Lovelaces of tomorrow,
09:49
who live in a permanent
reality of 1s and 0s,
09:54
they grow up to be very optimistic
and brave about technology.
09:57
They embrace the powers
and the opportunities
10:01
and the limitations of the world.
10:05
A world of technology
that is wonderful, whimsical
10:07
and a tiny bit weird.
10:11
When I was a girl,
10:14
I wanted to be a storyteller.
10:16
I loved make-believe worlds
10:18
and my favorite thing to do
10:20
was to wake up in the mornings
in Moominvalley.
10:21
In the afternoons,
I would roam around the Tatooines.
10:25
And in the evenings,
I would go to sleep in Narnia.
10:29
And programming turned out
to be the perfect profession for me.
10:33
I still create worlds.
10:37
Instead of stories, I do them with code.
10:39
Programming gives me this amazing power
10:43
to build my whole little universe
10:46
with its own rules
and paradigms and practices.
10:48
Create something out of nothing
with the pure power of logic.
10:53
Thank you.
10:58
(Applause)
10:59

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Linda Liukas - Programmer, storyteller and illustrator
Linda Liukas wants to create a more diverse and colorful world of technology, starting with the poetry of code.

Why you should listen

Linda Liukas is a programmer, storyteller and illustrator. Her children's book, Hello Ruby, is the "world’s most whimsical way to learn about technology, computing and coding.” Liukas founded Rails Girls, which has organized workshops in over 230 cities, teaching the basics of programming to more than 10,000 women. Linda worked at Codeacademy, which she left to write stories that teach children about software and programming. She won the 2013 Ruby Hero prize and was named the Digital Champion of Finland by the EU Commissioner for Digital Agenda.

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