MUBAI: It’s not that Nimesh Haldankar hates cats. It’s just that he can’t help smiling every time his hammer thwacks a feline head that dares to peek from a bin. “I prefer dogs,” admits the shy 13-year-old who recently created this wicked computer game with a few other dog-loving boys from his school. “It’s easy,” says Haldankar, showing you how to train the Garfield-like orange cat waiting onscreen to draw a 100 circles as a start.
First, you drag the ready pink block that says “Repeat” into the instructions panel. Then you place the yellow block that says “Move forward” inside this pink block. Enter the relevant numbers–repeat 99 times and move forward 360 degrees, for instance–and press go. At the end of its assignment, the cat’s smile is still intact and so is Haldankar’s, even though he spent his Diwali vacation learning what grown-ups call “coding”.
Seated in the computer lab at Juhu’s Vidyanidhi High school, Haldankar and a few other students from grades six to eight are exploring a free playground called Scratch, a software that helps them learn the basics of coding through a drag-and-drop programming block approach. So far, students have created enough games and animations in this software to unwittingly offer their supervisor, Varsha Bhandari, an insight into gender. After front-bencher Divya Nair finishes showing off her onscreen Diwali greeting card that boasts a moving flame, Bhandari says, “The girls like dance games while the boys like to show things like plane crashes and skulls.”
But this vacation batch would not have made it this far in Scratch had their school not signed up for something called ‘Hour of Code’ last year. Launched in 2013, ‘Hour of Code’ is a global campaign run by Code.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to demystifying computer science for students and underrepresented groups such as women. “Don’t just buy a new video game—make one,” Obama urges in a video on behalf of the campaign.
The idea here is that coding need not always look like a bunch of nerdy men in spectacles entering green semicolons on their screens. So, every December, during the Computer Science Education Week, which this year runs from December 7 to 13, students in over 180 countries learn how to code through Code.org’s fun, hour-long tutorials created in collaboration with engineers from Microsoft, Google, Twitter and Facebook. Here, Angry Birds, Disney princesses, Star Wars characters and even Minecraft’s Steve and Alex help break down things like ‘repeat loops’ for those between ages of four and 104. The graphical interface is similar to Scratch and the puzzles get more challenging as you progress.
Last December, as the only participant from Mumbai, Vidyanidhi school, saw a bunch of students ingesting code as they instructed Frozen’s Anna to draw a snowflake or adjusted the speed at which an angry bird reaches a pig through a maze. “Since these tutorials were like games, kids were vying to finish first,” recalls Nidhi Poddar, academic head at Vidyanidhi Info Tech Academy (Vita), who ran the workshops. Irrespective of their speed, though, the students received a certificate each at the end of the week.
There are benefits to introducing computer science early, says Savita Thakur, director of Vita. That is perhaps why, in its bid to help nurture budding app and game developers, Vidyanidhi school is conducting free week-long ‘Hour of Code’ workshops from December 7 to 12. Students from other schools and even adults who may be interested are free to register. After all, “coding,” says Thakur, “is language of future”.