Linux, musical road-dogging, and daily life by Paul W. Frields
Enrichment class.

Enrichment class.

Lately, as an extramural project I’ve been preparing an enrichment class I’ll be teaching at my kids’ elementary school in November. The class is for fifth graders, a very light introduction to software and programming concepts. The kids elect their enrichment class, which is a fantastic way to put together an audience because you know they’ll already be interested in the subject. The classes are held for one hour each Monday after school for four weeks — so there are four hours of class in total.

The first question was, would we use a language? I felt strongly the answer was yes, because I wanted the kids to have a hands-on learning experience. In addition, I believe fast feedback is very important for younger kids. It helps them feel more confident while they get comfortable with the material. So it was important to pick a language that was interpreted.

I ultimately decided on Python, not just because I’m comfortable with it and it meets the criteria, but also because it’s widely in use running things the kids have heard of (Google, Facebook, NASA), widely recognized as a good first language for learning, and is eminently readable for any of the kids who decide to pursue it further after class is over.

Of course I plan to spend a couple minutes to explain to them the awesomeness of free software, and how they can share it with others. I hope that’s a tiny nugget of learning they can take away even if they never touch Python again.

I also knew I’d need some good self-directed learning resources for kids in this age group, so they could keep going when class ends. There are at least two good books out there the kids can use if they want to continue on their own:

Both these books are available for Python 3, which is what I’ll be using for the class. I’ll be providing electronic copies of both for the kids to enjoy and learn more later.

Now, how would I make Python available for the kids? As it turns out, the school has brand-new HP desktop machines that were purchased this past year, and the resulting lab is completely homogeneous. This is fantastic because it means I have to worry a lot less about a student having a problem specific to their computer. If things work OK on one, they should be OK for all, modulo some low risk of sudden hardware problems.

But this didn’t mean I can necessarily install Python on all the computers. Nor would I want the kids to go through that process; it would be a waste of time as well as frought with all sorts of chances for human error that would lessen the learning experience. Although I have full support from the school administration, that doesn’t mean I should be installing stuff on their computers’ hard disks, or putting the onus on the computer resource teacher to do it.

Obviously, what I needed was a bootable operating system that wouldn’t touch the lab systems’ hard drives. This called for a Fedora Live USB key! I decided to go with Fedora 15 since the class is coming up before the release date of Fedora 16. And thanks to the livecd-tools package, and the spin-kickstarts repository on Fedora Hosted, this was relatively easy to handle as well. With a couple quick customizations, I could provide the kids with a safe, friendly, and powerful environment in which to learn.

After creating this boffo live image, I needed to try it out at the actual lab environment. I did that this afternoon, just as school was letting out for the kids, since the lab was free. There were no problems at all — the free software X video drivers worked spectacularly, NetworkManager connected kids to the classroom network with zero fuss, and the new GNOME 3 environment was ready to use. I tried a number of lab systems and gloriously, they were all configured homogeneously as well. The systems were even set to boot from USB first; all I have to do is make the keys, and before class, just insert them and power on!

I know I shouldn’t be elated that the software works just like it should, but I still love to think about how far we’ve come from the days when Linux could only be used by tinkerers. And of course I have to give huge props to all the people who work on the kernel and plumbing, GNOME 3, and Python. Without their hard work there’s no way I could provide the class to the kids. And the best part is, the zero cost and freedom of Fedora means all the kids can keep the keys and continue learning even after class ends.

I also want to thank Máirín Duffy for the inspiration, and her thoughts as I started putting the class together. She ran an amazing Inkscape class for some young people not long ago, which you should definitely check out! Just as Máirín did, I’m going to provide all my materials under a Creative Commons license, and blogging the class progress here. I can’t promise to provide lots of photos to go along with everything (terminals make dull subjects!), but I hope it’ll be fun and maybe even interesting to read.


  1. Pingback: [M]etabrain [E]ntry [L]og » Blog Archive » Python for kids, research proposal churning, SIGCSE workshop accepted

  2. This is a great plan.

    I’ll work to keep track of your progress. I look forward to the open source materials.

    Is there a place where I can get the thumb drive image you plan to use?
    I’d like to follow along, anticipating the opportunity to try to replicate your process with students here in my town.

    Máirín Duffy is a good source of inspiration, for sure. Her Inkscape materials are excellent.

    1. @Algot: I’ll definitely post the materials, as well as the kickstart I used. I don’t want to publish the whole image for space and licensing reasons, but the kickstart configuration is really all you need. I’ll include some tips on how to use it to make your own image.

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