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How do we get more women interested in programming? We can start by exposing them to more accessible learning tools earlier in life. That’s the idea behind iPad visual programming app Hopscotch, which will be released in beta on Tuesday.
Hopscotch is an object-oriented programming language that is purposely bright, colorful and welcoming to kids between ages 8 and 12. Rather than making young people wade through incomprehensible strings of words and numbers, writing code in Hopscotch consists of dragging and dropping different objects and running scripts on them. The objects are cutesy animal characters, and scripts can be selected from drop-down menus. The result is that kids can make short animations and games.
iPads are looked at by a lot of educators as ideal tools because they’re easy for kids to use and they’re so much less expensive than full-fledged computers. Hopscotch is in good company when it comes to teaching programming on Apple’s tablet: Codea, which is an iPad programming app that uses the Lua programming language, is an iPad-based coding app for anyone, not just kids. Tynker is another visual programming language that’s similar to Hopscotch; it too relies on kid-friendly objects that can be stacked together like Legos to build programs.
The language powering Hopscotch (like Tynker) is inspired by Scratch, a visual programming language for children developed at MIT. Scratch has been around for several years, although it doesn’t really work on mobile devices. But as Hopscotch co-founder and CEO Jocelyn Leavitt said, “it’s really popular and we really like it.”
Leavitt is a former history teacher, with a special interest in experiential learning methods. She doesn’t code, and that gets to the point of Hopscotch: she and her co-founder, Samantha John, both “wish this existed when we were growing up,” she told me. John taught herself to code after college, and she’s the one who led the engineering effort on Hopscotch.
But both founders want young people — especially girls — to be exposed to these kinds of tools as early in life as possible. The app is absolutely for boys too, but girls are the bigger challenge. Boys may get into programming because they like video games, but that’s not what drives young girls, she thinks. “Girls like creating things.” So they invested a lot of time in the artwork in the app designing characters that are cute, colorful and fun: “It’s something girls will like without being too girly,” Leavitt said.
Hopscotch is iPad only for now and it’s free. Though they haven’t decided on a business model yet, it will probably monetize the app through in-app purchases, like premium art, virtual goods or premium programming tutorials.