Teaching Coding Through Storytelling

Learning to program can be a daunting task, and the complexity and jargon behind it can be a put off for many people. However, Finnish author, illustrator, programmer and educator Linda Liukas wants to bring a new twist to encourage young people, particularly girls, to get interested in programming by telling stories.

Linda Liukas' Hello Ruby
Linda Liukas’ Hello Ruby

Liukas is the author of Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding, a children’s book published in 2015 after a blazingly successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Launched with a goal of raising $10,000, the campaign drew over $380,000 from more than 9,000 supporters. The book is designed to showcase the more colorful side of technology. The first part is about a girl named Ruby and her adventures with characters inspired by operating systems such as Snow Leopard and the Android robot. The second part involves exercises that can help young readers understand computers.

“In the story, Ruby’s father tells her to clean up the toys in her room, but she leaves the pens and papers on the floor because she’s being very literal, just like a computer,” Liukas told Rakuten Today after participating in an education panel discussion at the New Economy Summit (NEST) 2016. “You have to give exact commands to your computer, in the right order and you have to be very careful when naming things.”

The links between storytelling and programming may not be immediately obvious to some. But Liukas, who was raised on Moomin and other popular Finnish stories, believes they have much in common.

“Coding is highly creative,” she said. “It’s problem-solving. The programmer constructs a little universe from words where he or she defines all the rules and choices. To me, that is storytelling in the purest of ways.”

Linda Liukas onstage at NEST 2016
Linda Liukas onstage at NEST 2016

By becoming more aware of the incremental steps in performing an action like taking a sip of water from a glass, readers can better understand how computers execute commands, Liukas said. Pattern recognition and Boolean logic are also included in the concepts introduced in her book. The success of Hello Ruby highlights an important need in computer science education: only 0.4% of high school girls select computer science as a college major, according to the New York-based NPO Girls Who Code.

Liukas began learning Java as her first programming language and one of her early programming feats, using PHP, was to create a photo gallery focused on Al Gore, who was U.S. vice president at the time. In recent years, Liukas studied at Stanford University, worked as community manager for startup Codecademy and co-founded a group called Rails Girls that has supported the organization of workshops in 270 cities around the world to encourage young women to code.

Even while she negotiates the publishing rights for Hello Ruby in 14 markets, Liukas is now busy preparing a sequel that will explore the inner workings of computers. She’s also planning an app and other creative projects to encourage programming interest in girls.

“One way of changing society is changing how young people see things,” Liukas said. “Every problem in the world will be a computer problem to some extent. Just as a physicist uses a prism and a biologist uses a pipette, a computer scientist uses programming as a tool to solve problems in the world.”

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