Saturday, June 25, 2016

Turn to the web for kids’ summer enrichment - June 24, 2016

Parents and teachers know kids lose scholarly momentum over the summer, and research backs them up.

Certain kinds of summer camps go a long way to keep the brain’s synapses firing. They are expensive and most parents can only afford a week or two, if they can afford it at all. And by now it may be too late to sign up for good camps anyway.

How can we keep young brains firing on all cylinders so students can hit the ground running when back in school in late August?

I recently came across a website listing 1,800 online courses. does not provide the courses but lists courses produced by universities like Harvard, Stanford and Princeton, and companies such as Google and Facebook.

High school students, maybe even some middle schoolers, can watch these videos to get a feel for subjects they are interested in. Even if they do not finish an entire course, it will get them thinking. And it is a wonderful way to dip their toes into subjects they may want to major in at college.

The courses are free, although there may be a cost for add-on benefits such as course credit, certificates and mentoring.

I’ve tried to learn the Java programming language a few times from books. I am having more success with an online course out of San Jose State University. I watch at least a few minutes a day. Today, I watched for an hour or two as I procrastinate writing this column.

I’m not looking for any kind of college credit or certificate. I just want to be able to write my own Android app some day, and that takes Java.

There are courses in history, science, mathematics, engineering, education, social sciences, personal management and others.

Think your kids won’t sit down for an online video course? Check their YouTube viewing history. Younger kids especially are inhaling Minecraft videos to learn how to better play Minecraft.

Young girls are making millionaires out of young YouTubers who train them on the best ways to apply makeup. Others go to YouTube to learn to skateboard or other things that interest them.

When the Children’s Television Workshop did its initial research into education – research that lead directly to creating Sesame Street – they discovered children get more out of a video if their parents sit down and watch with them. That is why Sesame Street has some jokes that would go over the head of children, like characters named Meryl Sheep and Placido Flamingo.

In addition to reading to your younger children every night, consider watching a short educational video with them every day.

The first home computers, the Apple II, the Commodore 64, Radio Shack’s Model I, came with the BASIC programming language. Somewhere along the line companies stopped doing that.

I miss the days when young people looked at their new computers and asked “What can I make this computer do?” instead of “What can this computer do?”

In 1980 I knew a 12-year-old who asked that question, and by 14 he was writing programs for a 20-person financial shop. He’s made a mint programming apps for Wall Street.

Companies such as Google, Facebook and many others were founded by kids who asked that question.

Kids can begin programming right now at sites such as Scratch, created by MIT. It lets them create animations and games they can share with their friends.

The visual programming concepts they learn can be used in App Inventor, also by MIT, to create programs for their Android phones and tablets. They do not even have to have an Android device; the site has an emulator.

And the logical concepts they learn in Scratch or the others will directly help them if they move to a more conventional programming language such as Java or C++.

Your Minecraft enthusiast may already be programming. Minecraft scripts, called Mods by your kids, are small Javascript apps that make Minecraft do things. Just don’t tell them they are learning a marketable skill when they think they are playing.

Note for parents: Javascript is in no way related to the Java programming language. Yet, Javascript is a programming language extensively used in creating websites and is a desirable skill to have.

In 20 years, when we hear the 30-year-old founders of 10-year-old groundbreaking companies talk about how they got interested in technology, we are going to hear a lot about Minecraft mods.

Let’s see if we can’t make the transition back to school this fall less painful for students and teachers, and more productive too.

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