What is a computer?
A while ago I taught a group of 1st graders a class about computing. I wanted them to understand the concept of a computer in a simple and tangible way. So I came up with an activity where the kids would be able to build and test a simple computer anywhere: in the classroom, at home or at the playground.
Here is what I told them to do:
“Build a computer that can produce random numbers using anything you have at home.”
They go: “Really? We can use anything we like?”
And I go: “Yes. Anything you like. Except of course your mom’s or your dad’s computer. You can’t use a computer to build a computer. That would be cheating. You are also not allowed to generate the random numbers in your head. The computer must do that.”
And then they go: “What are random numbers?”
It took me a few cycles to recover from such a disarming question. I thought “Wow, the world around us is full of randomness (especially the computing world) yet how does one explain it to a six year-old?”
I said: “It’s numbers that are not in order. They are completely mixed up and you can’t guess which number comes next. Like when you throw a dice. Can you guess which number will come up when you throw a dice? No, right? That’s a random number.”
Solutions as surprising as a random number
The kids surprised me with their creativity. Here are some of their cool “computer” designs:
Surprised yet again
What’s more surprising than the creativity of the children is the lack of creativity of the adults. Having already seen what the kids came up with, I posed the same question when I interviewed a series of college students for a software engineering position. They were about to graduate from one of the top computer science programs in the US.
I asked the candidates:
“Design a computer for generating random numbers using anything found in this interview room.”
9 out of 10 of them gave me the same answer:
“I can do this by flipping a coin.”
And then I thought: “Should I tell them a 6 year-old can do better than that?”
What’s your design?
Does you kid have a cool design? Post a picture to the DrTechniko Facebook Page. I will personally respond to you.
I hope we learned something useful today,