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Functions: They're not just for math class

Posted 5 years ago
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Day 3 of volunteering to support the local community for the Hour of Code went great! I visited a 3rd and 4th grade class as well as hosted a workshop at Wolfram HQ in the evening for about 100 people. Here's a picture of the event we hosted, it was great to see that level of interest from the community:

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Throughout the past few days I've been giving short workshops on programming with the Wolfram Language to elementary school students. Before we dove into the activity, I talked about what it's like to be a programmer. For most students, they have had experience with block-based programming languages (drag blocks around...make cartoons dance etc). Block-based programming is fantastic for young students that have low reading/typing skills. But for the students that I worked with, it was clear that they could handle the challenge of working with a text-based programming language, like the Wolfram Language.

Before they did the Getting Started exploration, I talked a little bit about what a function was and for most students they remembered that word from math class when they discussed the input-rule-output problem. For Illinois students, it's common for elementary students to be asked "What is my Rule?". In any case, we talked about functions, discussed a few examples and then started coding.

I heard the teacher I was working with say:

Now this is coding! Not just moving blocks around.

We worked through several starter and basic explorations in the Wolfram Programming Lab. For each input, I had the students identify the function and take an educated guess as to what that function would do. Since the Wolfram Language is intuitive and readable, the students had an easy time understanding what the functions were supposed to do. Some were mathy, some had image inputs, some produced 3D objects etc. It was an excellent learning experience that took the concept of a function out of the math class and into an application.

As students progress through their academic career, it's important to support problem solving and computational thinking skills. Learning how to program in the Wolfram Language, frees the student from cumbersome calculations and allows them to think creativity about the issue at hand. These skills are paramount to meet the demands of the future. Computers will always be there to do the computation, but we need our future scientists, researchers and developers to be able to think outside the box to solve the world's problems.

Go beyond the Hour of Code and give students the skills needed to be first-rate problem solvers.

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