Thursday, February 20, 2014

Children’s Book With Coding Themes Is Kickstarter Hit

By Jens Hansegard and Sven Grundberg)

Ruby stumbles around in a magical world and meets robots and a lonely snow leopard, and solves problems with the help from wise penguins. Linda Liukas.

Linda Liukas was at a meeting with officials at the Finnish Ministry of Education when her phone started buzzing. As she stepped out the room, she discovered that her phone had clogged up with push messages from Kickstarter, the crowd funding exchange site, where her project, a children’s fantasy book aimed at teaching concepts of computer coding, had reached its $10,000 minimum funding goal target in just a few hours, a good measure in terms of time to achieve funding goals.

A Kickstarter project doesn’t end when the funding target is reached, and with two days left to funding deadline, her project has raised more than 340,000 pledged dollars.

The book is called Hello Ruby, and its plot follows a small girl with a huge imagination called Ruby (which is also an open-source programming language), as she stumbles around in a magical world and meets robots and a lonely snow leopard, and solves problems with the help from wise penguins.

Many of Liukas’s Kickstarter backers are parents who worry that their children won’t grow up to be Marissa Mayer, but others are simply programming aficionados. While Liukas’s project is based in New York, her native Finland is home to computer operating system Linux, and has a rich history of computer programming, as well as a vibrant hacker subculture.

The book won’t have the kids learn to actually write algorithms. Rather, Ms. Liukas, a business school dropout, wants to introduce basic programming concepts like sequences, loops and conditionals. She wants kids to understand and embrace basic computer logic, so that they later formulate code in the same effortless and creative way they build structures with LEGO.

“There are so many young girls out there who just resort to liking on Facebook or retweeting on Twitter,” she says. “Programming shouldn’t be something for boys in their 20s in Silicon Valley.”

Hello Ruby’s idea is to draw the kids in with narrative.

“We learn best through stories and narratives. Some of the most foundational stories for me have been the books about [fairy tale characters] Moomin and Pippi Longstocking. And I think the programming community has not looked into stories at all.”

As a teenager infatuated with Al Gore, Ms. Liukas built a website dedicated to the then vice president, teaching herself HTML and CSS. The website, titled “Al Gore – my hero,” probably remains the only Finnish Al-Gore fan site.

With more than 3,000 orders for Hello Ruby, she now plans to make the book her full time job, and has several other books in the pipeline.

“I’ve already gotten requests to translate the book to some 20 different languages,” she says.

Ms. Liukas is currently testing her Ruby workbook on a group of six-year-olds, who she says learn much quicker than she had expected.