Stack OverflowCareer Day: how do I make "computer programmer" sound cool to 8 year olds?
[+79] [25] Kozyarchuk
[2008-10-16 02:57:57]
[ career-development education children ]

Have to do a talk at Career Day at my kid's school & looking for ideas on how to make "computer programmer" sound cool to 8 year olds.

(2) That's one of the smartest and important question I've ever saw on this page, after all, it's nice to remember that life comes before work. - Augusto Radtke
(10) Isn't being a programmer cool by default?!?!? - Tobias
[+113] [2008-10-16 03:24:26] Booji Boy [ACCEPTED]

I did the same thing for my daughter's 1st grade class. I brought in an old computer and bunch of parts. I explained what each part does and let them touch them. This was a big hit! They'd never seen a computer's insides let alone been allowed to actually touch them!

I asked them some questions to dispel myths about computers: How many think computers are magic? (No magic) How many think computers are smart? (Nope; they are really dumb - they only do EXACTLY what you tell them), etc. It was very fun.

The teacher told me that it's the first one where the kids didn't seem bored. The first thing I did was have everybody leave their desk and sit in circle - the kids liked that. If you have fun so will they.

(2) upvote for good group-engaging tactics - Steven A. Lowe
Sounds like it would have great appeal to a first-grader. They probably need to have the hands-on discussion before introducing the notion of software. - Julie
Thanks. It was fun for all. I would do it again in a minute. - Booji Boy
I think older kids (12+) would be harder to impress. My motivation was "How am I going to compete with the firemam, policeman and the pilot?" I know "hands on"! - Booji Boy
great answer - I think a lot of programmers would be surprised to find how interesting most people (esp kids) think it is to control a computer and be responsible for so many types of software they use on a regular basis. - Jay
fantastic, I'm doing a career day for my beaver's group, totally using this idea - shelfoo
That's a really great answer; I wish I had more than one up-vote! - alastairs
(4) No magic, but software seems to require a fair bit of voodoo... - johnstok
(2) Great answer and +1 from me, but where's the software and programming part? - Cristian Ciupitu
I'm planning to use this for my church's Summer Bible School. We will be having a "Career Day" also. They will be around 8-12 years old. Thanks! - lamcro
That sounds so fun! - Heather
[+14] [2008-10-16 04:00:53] Stephen Pace

Similar to @Boojiboy, I used to do this quite a bit, and what I found successful was to do two things:

1) I brought in some old computer equipment for them to see and play with. I showed the evolution of disks with a 3380 mountable disk pack from my co-op days, one of the orange rings from inside of said disk pack to pass around, and then 8", 5.25", and 3.5" floppies. Talk about the relative sizes and what types of things they could store on each in terms their age group understands (music, videos, etc.) vs CDs and DVDs they recognize. You could also show USB sticks and/or SD media.

2) As mentioned, I relate programming to video games. You can ask if they like playing games and what games they like. To supplement this discussion, I also bring in older units (Atari 2600, Intellivision, Odyssey) and a newer one to compare graphics. If time allows, I let some play with the old games. It has rare that many of the kids have seen these old games, much less experience them, and they absolutely cannot believe the quality of the graphics. It gets a laugh every time. You can then segue the discussion into the need to take related classes in math and science. Video games are certainly the hook to hold their interest, though.

Best of luck! It is a good thing you are doing.

[+13] [2008-10-16 03:04:30] ckramer

8 year olds could be a tough crowd unless you happen to write video game software. If you happen to have some cool visual aide, like a Lego Mindstorm, you could get some interest there (and I can make it do whatever I want...).

Personally, I found this [1] presentation by Chris Sells to be truly excellent...though it is geared at High School, what do I want to do with my life, sorts.


Busting out some Lego is an excellent idea. - Dan
+1 for the lego mindstorms idea, great illustration for kids of what programming can translate to in the real/physical world. - Jay
[+7] [2008-10-16 03:15:07] Greg Borenstein

_why the lucky stiff, a crazy genius from the Ruby community, has a great project called Hackety Hack [1] that teaches kids 13 and up to code by making it really easy to accomplish advanced cool stuff. Just a few lines of code lets you build a YouTube downloader or a blog or a chat room with your friends.

The insight is that what gets them going is to show them what stuff they can actually make. I've seen people have a lot of luck with Arduino [2] and other physical computing projects: getting to actually make something blink or beep or spin goes a long way. And, of course, robots will always be appealing. If you can do a demo where they you get a volunteer to write a few lines that do something spectacularly visible or audible, I bet you'd get some of them hooked.

In summary: you want to show them something awesome and get the to think: I could make that too.


Its going to be a 5~10 minute presentation, so stuff like this won't work in this case. However +1 for the great link to teach children (as opposed to a presentation during career day) - Robert Gould
[+4] [2008-10-16 03:21:44] Sammy Larbi

Show them some cool things you can do with programming. It doesn't have to be SOAP and XML and boring CRUD webapps.

It can be fun: Coincidentally, just a couple of days ago I covered some potential entry points for kids in programming on my weblog (which includes some of the responses here, plus some). If you're interested, see Getting your kids involved in programming [1])

That's why it struck a nerve with me.


I have found showing people code is a quick way to make them less interested in programming. Something graphical like Windows Workflow, XNA, or good ole Logo might work better. - Matthew Whited
[+4] [2008-10-16 03:22:03] Steven A. Lowe

tell them what you really do, tell them what makes you proud of what you do - don't pretend that your job is glamorous or dangerous or 'cool' or whatever, if it's not.

in other words, don't lie to them - they're children!

chances are, the software you write is used by real people to do things that even 8-year-olds understand as "important" or "useful"; concentrate on that

if it doesn't then tell them that you like to solve puzzles and investigate mysteries, and programming gives you boatloads of these things on a daily basis ;-)

and please report back here what happened!

[+4] [2008-10-16 03:00:24] tvanfosson

Visited my son's second grade class for career day. Took my 3 year old daughter with me (since I was home anyway). Told them all about developing a driving simulator and all the studies you could do with it, how you could crash and not get hurt, etc. First question after I was done talking: What's your favorite color? Second question: what's her favorite color? Ah, well...

(No. I am not making this up.)

So the answer is...don't be discouraged if their attention wanders. They're 8 years old.

[+4] [2008-10-16 03:49:54] Uri

Teach her Logo. Kids get a kick out of that and it really explains programming and what is done well.

[+4] [2008-10-16 04:15:53] TimB

Don't try to make it sound cool -- at least, don't try to make it sound cool to everyone in the whole class, because it's doubtful you'll succeed.

Your challenge should be to make it sound cool to the one or two kids in the class who might find it interesting and might have the aptitude, but might be discouraged because of peer pressure, or because their parents want them to be lawyers, etc. If you can reach those kids and convince them to get and stay interested in programming, then you will have succeeded.

[+3] [2008-10-16 04:04:59] Nrj

Tell them Bill Gates is a computer programmer and is a billionaire.

That actually is a good one. - Robert Gould
Then the children ask loudly "Who is bill gates sire? Is he one of the telletubbies?" - RWendi
But they will know what a billionaire means ;). - Nrj
Come to think of it maybe Vista was developed by teletubbies. - Guge
[+3] [2008-10-18 12:56:07] user9282

You don't need to make programming cool enough for kids, you need to make kids cool enough for programming.

[+2] [2008-10-16 05:09:55] Michael Easter

Show some demos from Greenfoot! The kids might not understand the code but with some interaction, they'll get the idea.... Here's an introductory article [1]

For the uninitiated, here is a quote:

Greenfoot is a joint project funded by Sun Microsystems and implemented at the University of Kent at Canterbury (UK) and Deakin University, Melbourne (Australia). The goal is to target students in the pre-teen years and older by providing a development environment which is both engaging and flexible. [snip] Although Greenfoot uses the same UML as BlueJ to clearly show the object oriented design of each scenario, its true power resides in object visualization. It greatly lowers the bar for building graphical applications in Java; this is important because the quick positive feedback inspires students to work with the code more.


[+2] [2008-10-18 12:36:22] user29208

Several years ago when my daughter was in 2nd or 3rd grade, I used the Lego Mindstorm robotics kit to introduce the students to programming. I started the demonstration with a simple robot that moved in a straight line until it ran into something, then I lead them through some questions on what additional "features" we could add. I then changed the logic on the robot to do things like back-up and change direction when it ran into an obstical, and stop if it detected it was going to run off the edge of the table.

The kids seemed to enjoy the demo and they did ask some questions about the robot and how I made it work.

[+2] [2008-10-16 04:27:09] Logan

Make your presentation visual and colorful. Stress that it's easy to get started with programming and give them the idea that they don't have to wait until they're older and have 20 years of school to do cool stuff. Kids are always being told that they can do things "when you're older". Showing them that they have the power to create right now will blow them away.

Depending on how much time you have, set up some templates and create a new web page on the fly using their suggestions. You gotta control that though. Imagine taking input from a room full of PMs with ADD all of whom just came from lunch at Starbuck's on "free extra shot" day. It could get out of hand fast.

If you want to do hardware, bring in a box of parts, explain each one and assemble a PC in front of them. At the end boot from a Linux live distro so they see the splash screen come up and think "That was easy!" If you can customize the splash screen to say "Hi, Ms. Crabapple's Class!" they'll think you're a god.

Key points: make it visual and keep it moving.

[+2] [2008-10-16 04:33:05] Augusto Radtke

I would say do anything but screaming on the room humping like a monkey something like developers, developers, developers! I don't think that work for kids.

Seriously, we don't have career day in Brazil, but if I could I would say that I have a profession like anyone else, that there is no magic, it's boring sometimes, it's nice other days because I like it.

And I would remember them that there is a life besides computer. I'm quite scared with kids these days that don't remember anything else than hanging around in the Internet instead of playing outside while they can.

[+2] [2008-10-16 03:00:56] Scottie T

Talk about video games.

I think that you should give more details in your answer. - Cristian Ciupitu
[+2] [2008-10-16 03:38:49] unintentionally left blank

How about telling the truth?

Sometimes it really is cool to be a programmer. Sometimes, you get to solve a problem in an interesting way. You get to stand on the shoulders of luminaries such as Alan Turing, Jon Von Neumann and yes, even Bill Gates. Other times, it's frustrating as hell. Sometimes you have to deal with corporate B.S. Occasionally you may get laid off. Children need to know the whole story - not just a fairy tale about the games industry. Otherwise how can they make informed decisions about their future careers? Tell it like it is, MaksimK, and good luck to you.

I am shaw 8 year olds will be enthralled by stories of Alan Turing and Von Neumann! They are a long way off even considering future careers, thats not the point of the talk. - Craig
Er, it's career day, surely they should be thinking along those lines? - unintentionally left blank
What you're saying is absolutely true, but it doesn't answer the original, very-focused question. It's like answering "how do I reduce flicker when repainting a window" with "make sure you release the DC after painting." - Tim Lesher
Tim, point taken, but sometimes it's worth answering a question like "how do I use a screwdriver to drive in a nail?" with "maybe you should use a hammer". Just trying to provide some food for thought beyond what others have already said. - unintentionally left blank
Of course an EIGHT-year-old shouldn't be thinking along those lines, even on career day! I didn't even think seriously about my career until the last year of my university education... - Ace
Let us know what the teacher says when you use the phrase "frustrating as hell" in your presentation. - Kyralessa
[+1] [2008-10-16 04:16:18] Robert Gould

Kids know about Hackers, they appear in movies and cartoons and stuff like that. Tell them you are a "good" hacker, that should be easy to understand, and enticing to their imaginations too

Note: At the age of 8, enticing their imagination is more than enough, you can't explain to them about the intricacies within the 10 minutes you'll get.

[+1] [2008-10-16 04:58:58] Brandon

For those that have read The Last Lecture [1], you could show the 3d programming environment,Alice, here [2]. I'm not new to programming but still think 3d animation is pretty neat.


[0] [2009-05-27 22:06:16] erikric

Try to relate the subject to things that kids think are cool, like iPods and Playstation. Show them that these objects are in fact little computers, and that it is a programmers job to create all the fun stuff you can do with them.

I remember being blown away when I heard that the first assignment at the first math course at university was to compress sound and actually make mp3-like files using mathematical algorithms. "Create mp3's?!? You mean you can actually use this math thingy to create something cool and useful? Now why didn't we learn THAT in high school?!?"

[0] [2008-10-16 04:18:37] Ryan Eastabrook

Although I don't have too much personal experience with it, I have read that the Alice Project [1] is a good place to start with children. It was created by Randy Pausch (who's life story is pretty amazing) to teach children the fundamentals of programming in a fun way, rather than making it seem like a tedious task. They will have enough time to learn difficult concepts and languages when they are older!


[0] [2008-10-16 04:41:43] Joe Scylla

Tell them that programming is about creativity and freedom . There is a wide variety of things you can create. You're not limited to a bunch of task, tools or branches. You can combine programming with other hobbies like gaming, music, video, etc. if you're lucky. Tell them you'll have the opportunity to learn something new throughout your career - it will get never boring.

Programmer can be cool because they have the opportunity to create something cool.

[0] [2008-10-16 03:52:41] Paul Nathan

There's a language designed for kids. Turtle, I think it's called.

It's called Logo... (See my answer above) - Uri
But logo does have a turtle :) - Ron Tuffin
[0] [2008-10-16 04:02:40] Kent Fredric

You probably won't get a serious "im going to start now and be a programmer" impact, but I think its important to nail the basic fundamentals of it

  • in essence, you: the human, give a structured sequence of tasks to the computer and it performs them.

  • lots of tasks make computer do really cool things

  • games etc are built this way.

They may not start to utilise it immediately, but the thing is it will put the ideas in there to mull over which may encourage them to be more aware of it later.

Thats basically how I got started, black and white screen hello-world basic apps. At the time I didn't see much point and it was stupid, but years later I was getting out a book from the library with 2000 line basic programs that were somehow games when you got them to run ( Interestingly enough, the whole time and multiple occurrences I got that book out, I never understood exactly how they worked, or even managed to get any of them to run! )( yes, I was one of those strange children whom hung out in the non-fiction section )

Eventually one day they may wish to explore programming, and its important when that happens they have access to a programming environment.

( Until late high school I didn't consider programming even as a job, it was merely something entertaining people did! )

[-5] [2008-10-16 03:48:21] user26435

let them do python