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The Computer History Museum

I have been teaching a group of homeschoolers how to use the Alice programming environment. This is an environment created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon with young programming students in mind. Most of the kids using it are high school students, but the kids I’m teaching range from eight to twelve. If you want to know more about teaching programming to kids, visit my blog on that subject.

Our Alice Club went on a fieldtrip to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, which has recently been renovated and expanded. My kids had been there before; I had not. I have written recently on what I think makes a good science museum. This was an interesting counterpart because this museum makes no pretense at being a “hands-on science learning” experience. It’s about history, and history is already made.

Babbage's Difference Engine

However, this actually is a great science museum. We had a group of students and siblings ranging from one to twelve. Though the babies didn’t get much from the exhibits, they appreciated the open floorplan, the variety of textures, and the cool light exhibits like the moving pattern of 1’s and 0’s. Their mothers appreciated the fact that most of the exhibits were behind plexiglass and they weren’t mortally afraid that they’d have to dig out their own old Commodore to give to the museum. There were also ample places to rest and regroup.

There was some amount of hands-on stuff for the younger set. The first area of the museum teaches the pre-modern history of computing, with replicas of many of the computing machines designed and built through history. Some of these are very hands-on, allowing kids to manipulate old computing devices. They even had a slide rule, which was the first piece of equipment that made me feel like I might belong in a museum — we actually used those (and I enjoyed it!) in high school chemistry.

In the computer gaming room, of course they had some old games that kids could play, including Pacman. Now, that probably takes a few people back to youthful times!

But mostly, this museum is about looking and marveling. One of the most fantastic machines is one of the earliest designs and the most poignant: Charles Babbage designed his Difference Engine in the mid-nineteenth century. Existing technology didn’t allow the Victorians to build the precise mechanisms the machine required. Babbage died never knowing for certain that his engine would work. Now, over a hundred years later, they have one at the Computer History Museum…and it works! It wasn’t being operated when we were there, but it was positively elegant in the video. Sadly, by the time we had the technology to build his machine, our computers had made his obsolete.

Each area of the museum is about different historical periods or sets of inventions that were important in the development of computers. For elementary-age kids, or kids who have no prior fascination with computers, the museum provides a sort of treasure hunt that takes kids through the different areas in search of important developments. Kids who love computers probably already know enough just to be entertained on their own. Our two oldest kids, both boys who love computers, were completely self-entertained. Thinking that perhaps they’d just been hanging out and not really interacting with the exhibits, I asked my son about a few things I’d seen that meshed with his interests: he’d seen them all and had plenty of interesting observations that told me that I didn’t need to be there, quizzing him to make sure he’d been getting our money’s worth.

(Another benefit: The museum is $15 for adults, but free for kids 12 and under — it was a cheap visit for us all!)

As an adult, I particularly enjoyed seeing how computer history intersected with my life. I have direct or tangential experiences with a number of people who are featured in videos, which was pretty cool. (Not a one of them has aged since my Stanford days, I swear!) And it was frankly cool to see artifacts from my childhood and beyond: A robot I remembered some child having when I was a kid. My first laptop in pristine condition. (This was particularly interesting because we gave that laptop to our kids to play with, and they eventually dismantled it!) The very terminals I worked on as a student.

For the student of computer science, there was more: Recordings of various luminaries in the field talking simply about their approach to programming; in-depth analysis of what made various innovations important; a computer language time-line that I could have spent much longer untangling; and an emphasis on the fact that this is an ongoing process of invention and discovery.

I highly recommend this museum as an unusual stop for kids who might not think they’re terribly interested in computers, as well as the kids you know will love it. I didn’t see one bored kid in the place.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

5 Responses

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  1. Viva says

    Hi Suki! Great to see you’re still blogging for Santa Cruz Parent! I’m going to start up with them again, too. I do have a question for you- do you ever feel like you don’t have enough energy to homeschool? Sometimes when I have the day off during the week, and my 4-year-old daughter is home with me, I am so tired from whatever we were doing over the past couple days that we just shlub around and get hardly anything done, and I think, “If I were homeschooling her right now, I’d have to actually educate her instead of letting her play endlessly with her Legos while I put my feet up on the couch.” How do you deal with that?

    • Suki says

      Hi Viva — Welcome back! Yes, all homeschoolers (even those unbelievably energetic ones we watch with jealousy) experience this. All *parents* experience this. Homeschoolers have a few ways of dealing with it. #1: We remind ourselves that classroom teachers have off days, and their students survive. #2: We know from experience that days when mom says, “Oh, I’m too tired to homeschool. Go outside” are days when our kids come up with really cool, creative projects. #3: We know that learning happens in mad bursts, not in slow increments over 9 months. Just as your child was a crawler one day then a walker — it seemed — the next, your child goes from a non-reader to a reader all of a sudden, not a word a day but a novel a day! Therefore, a day of playing in the garden isn’t going to hurt — it’ll help! #4: The amount of time in a year of life is so much greater than the amount of time spent in school. To miss a day of homeschooling because Mom wants to walk on the beach, play video games, or send the kids out while she paints her toenails really is not a tragic thing! Thanks for asking. Suki

  2. Viva says

    You should write a post about that, if you haven’t already. P.s. did you really write that comment at 2:26 a.m.?

  3. Suki says

    Wow…I apparently was in a different time zone at that moment. Or I was sleep walking. When I was young, I could do things like be up at 2:26 a.m. However, after having a baby who didn’t sleep for THREE ENTIRE YEARS (you think I’m exaggerating? A month after he started sleeping…I got pregnant again!), I am now very jealous of my sleep time. This post covers similar information to the above: — Suki

Continuing the Discussion

  1. A few words about scientists and inventors – Avant Parenting linked to this post on May 3, 2011

    […] about the history of the computer that my son and I read about and learned more about at the Computer History Museum. There were two men involved in the making of the computer who might be said to have failed: […]

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