Facebook Engineer Carlos Bueno does more than work on the world’s largest social network. Bueno is the author of Lauren Ipsum, a novel about computer science and critical thinking, aimed at kids, and the book is being used in classrooms worldwide.
Bueno is also part of the Champions of Change program run by the White House, and he wrote a blog post for the White House, emphasizing the importance of educating children on the basics of computer science and technology.
Bueno spoke with AllFacebook about Lauren Ipsum and the thinking behind the novel.
AF: Has Facebook as a company or any of your co-workers at Facebook contributed to your efforts to promote technology education for children?
CB: Facebook is stupendously supportive of extracurricular projects. Some people build model helicopters, some people juggle or paint murals on the walls, and some people write. Co-workers with children or nieces and nephews were among the first fans, and they helped spread the book through word-of-mouth. I also leaned heavily on my friends for technical review. Only one known “bug” made it into the first edition.
AF: What has the response been from parents and educators?
CB: A lot of parents have taken it up as a bedtime story, for children a lot younger than I expected. The feedback and fan letters have been almost entirely enthusiastic. Programmers who are parents often say they finally feel able to clearly explain what it is they do and how.
Teachers have been equally excited, and they often ask for extra material to help build a curriculum around the book. Another surprise was which teachers are using it. I’ve come across three or four professors using Lauren Ipsum in university-level computer science courses and teacher training.
AF: You said in your blog post that you and your wife looked for concepts that could be explained to a nine-year-old, but what age groups do you target?
CB: Age nine is kind of a sweet spot for education. It’s just old enough to grasp some very sophisticated ideas, yet young enough to retain the boundless enthusiasm and imagination of childhood. If you think about it, a large number of the books loved and read by all ages of people started out as a story for the typical third-grader.
AF: What prompted you to take the novel approach (pun intended) of a novel and go the fiction route instead of a more nonfiction, how-to style?
CB: Two reasons, or rather I did it because it felt right and made up two reasons later.
First, I wanted to show some of the magic and fun of what we might call computational thinking. It’s not about dry how-to knowledge; it’s a point of view, a way of looking at the world from a different angle. It’s about showing how familiar things have a magic behind them. For instance, the game of 20 questions embodies an extremely useful algorithm called binary search. Once you understand that, you can apply it more generally and look for more things in the world like it.
The second reason was that storytelling is an effective way to change minds and behavior on a broad scale. Stanford University now has a Quidditch team, so you can’t tell me fiction doesn’t have the power to affect institutions. The trick is to pick more useful payloads.
If you truly want an idea to become mainstream, it has to become part of stories and songs and games. That’s where the mainstream lives. Every basic life skill has a nursery rhyme about it, from cooking to crossing the street. We have songs about the alphabet because universal literacy is a fundamental cultural goal. The day we start teaching children songs about data structures is the day we’re finally serious about universal computer literacy.
You can’t just wait around wishing for a cultural change to happen. To change the culture, you have to contribute to it. You have to slug it out for real dollars against Harry Potter and Cosmopolitan, and then push through that down to the real fabric of culture, which is what parents think is important to teach their children.
AF: How proud will you be when the first child who was really affected by Lauren Ipsum accepts a job at Facebook or another high-profile tech company?
CB: That’s already happened, for some definition of “child.” It’s not really about the jobs. I think we focus way too much on programming as a formal profession. The point is to think of it as a skill that anyone can use in their everyday lives, and that some people do for a living.
I’m especially proud of the people who have been inspired to be creative in the same “genre.” One of Ipsum‘s first fans, an 11-year-old named Laurel, started writing her own stories. Several have made little games in Scratch. A Stanford student named Sarah Sterman is finishing a book called The Code Witch. This means more to me than job counts, because it means the idea is catching on.
And Bueno wrote in his White House blog post:
Three years ago, I started writing Lauren Ipsum, a children’s novel about computer science and critical thinking. I wanted to write the introduction I wish I’d had as a child. My wife Yta and I looked for concepts that could be explained to a nine-year-old. We purposefully ignored how hard or easy they were supposed to be; that’s what we were testing.
It’s easy to forget that computer science is a very young field, and young fields are messy. As we race to generate new knowledge, we also generate excess complexity and jargon, piled up around us like sawdust. When the hard stuff looks messy and complicated, and the easy stuff looks messy and complicated, too, then you can’t really tell the difference. That means, as teachers, we’re not even starting in the right places.
Many things considered basic were much harder than expected. Other things with impressive-sounding names were literally child’s play. It turns out that kids already understand cryptographic timing attacks; they just call it the game of hangman. Most humbling was the number of things I failed to explain because I didn’t really understand them.
Take a few minutes to try an experiment. Pick something that you know that is supposed to be complicated. Pretend you are talking to a child and try as hard as you can to truly understand and distill and explain it. Then try it out on an actual child. Tell them what you are doing and ask for help; work together to come to an understanding. It’s astonishing what children can do if you don’t tell them it’s too hard. The odds are good you’ll learn something, too. And that’s progress.
Parents: Will you check out Lauren Ipsum?