By: Mark Guarino November 12, 2015

Getting children interested in computers is easy. Getting them interested in programming one? Not so much.

Northwestern University computer scientist Michael Horn is working to change that. His research aims to inspire computer literacy in places other than school, namely home, museums and after-school programs. The goal is to get kids as young as kindergartners—particularly girls and minority groups—into coding as much as video and games.

“There are a lot of people who are turned off by computation as it is usually portrayed,” he says. “I'm interested in ways to change people's perceptions of what the field is and what it can be.”

He will have help soon. Thanks to a five-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation he received in July, he plans to hire a team of graduate students to work on “Blocks, Stickers and Puzzles,” a project that will test how areas as elemental as songs, games and storybooks can be re-imagined as opportunities for children to take first steps into programming without even knowing it.

A book of stickers, for example, could align with a smartphone app to produce a digital display of whatever sticker arrangements the child chooses. Similarly, an exhibit Horn created at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley invited groups of children to arrange wooden blocks on a table in a way that controlled digital frogs that leapt across an animated pond.

Horn, 40, says putting programming inside a social environment gives it greater sense of play, which is meant to increase diversity among budding young computer geeks.

He was one of them. Growing up in Houston, Horn received an Apple IIe in seventh grade and was hooked. After graduating from Brown University in 1997 with a computer science degree, he worked for six years in Silicon Valley, where he created software for an online curriculum company. “We discovered even really young kids can engage in surprisingly sophisticated ways with computational ideas and they were excited about it,” he says.

Horn's NSF grant is a “breakthrough,” the first time a career award went to a scientist invested in instructional work outside the classroom, says Judy Diamond, a foundation adviser and professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. “Mike has an unusual combination of skills and interests that you don't often find in one person,” she says. Along with his experience in computer science, she says, he possesses “a very intuitive sense of how to reach children with digital media in a kind of informal, free-choice setting.”

“He's a new breed of what museums need,” she says.

Horn already has worked through his ideas at several museums across the U.S., including the Field Museum in Chicago.

At home in Ravenswood, Horn says he often tests some of his earliest ideas on his own two children, ages 5 and 9. “I try to be in tune with what they are interested in,” he says. “My daughter will tell me when something stinks.”


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