[IAEP] Turtles All The Way Out

Walter Bender walter.bender at gmail.com
Tue Jun 7 07:37:01 EDT 2011

On Mon, Jun 6, 2011 at 8:11 PM, John Gilmore <gnu at toad.com> wrote:

> I had to think about this some before having a useful response.

Lots of good ideas here, so thank you for taking the time.

> > I cannot speak for every Sugar developer, but the approach I have tried
> to
> > take with Turtle Art is a bit different than you are describing. The
> > block-based programming environment is not meant to be a substitute for
> real
> > tools; it is meant to be a place to get started; to learn that you can
> write
> > and modify code; and to provide multiple motivations and launch pads for
> > getting into the "real" thing. I've worked pretty hard to make the
> > "structured thing" behind the view more approachable, and have provided
> > multiple ways in and out: exporting your "fluffy" view into Logo that can
> be
> > run in Brian Harvey's text-based Logo environment; direct, in-line
> > extensions written in Python; the ability to create new blocks by
> importing
> > Python; a plugin mechanism for making major interventions; and a
> refactoring
> > of the underlying structures to make the code more approachable. (The
> source
> > code is peppered with comments and examples of how to make
> modifications.)
> > None of these interventions are intended to keep the kids programming in
> > Turtle Art. They are all intended to get the kids started down the path
> of
> > "real" programming. But I content that we need to engage them; let them
> > discover that they can write code; and make changes; and that it is not
> > something just for "others" but for everyone.
> Walter, this is a worthwhile approach.
> But it was all invisible from an OLPC user's point of view (i.e. a
> child's).  All they get is a GUI in which they can hook blocks
> together and see graphics.
> Even finding the library of fun looking pre-existing designs was hard
> (it's hiding behind a bizarre looking icon that you can't even see
> until you go to a different tab in the Frame than the default one).
> If you show a kid how to find one of those designs, they get the idea
> of TurtleArt, and can modify them to see how the design changes.
> Until they see a complete, working design in 10 blocks including a
> loop, TurtleArt is a morass where new users can drag things around but
> it doesn't do anything fun.
> (Note I'm working from memory of a several-year-old TurtleArt.  Perhaps
> it's better now.)

Please grab a recent version. It is quite different from even a year ago.

> (Also, it's hard to make the leap from a slow turtle leaving marks
> behind as it goes two steps and turns, to the whole screen being
> filled with colors in a flash.  Most things in the world don't have
> the many-orders-of-magnitude speedups that we in computing have become
> blase about.  It wouldn't occur to us that to paint an entire wall in
> a second, we should tell the painter to move the brush one inch and
> then repeat that over and over until done.  We'd look for a spray gun,
> or toss a whole bucket of paint, or recruit a crowd of painters, or
> something.  Fast things and painstaking things aren't disjoint in
> computing, as they are elsewhere; how do you teach that powerful insight?)

Cute idea for a project: "fill the screen." There are of course many ways to
do it: from using the fill-screen block to setting the pen size to the
screen width to discovering the repeat block to discovering that you can
launch as many turtles as you'd like, each of which has a pen.

> > I am open to suggestions as to how to get more kids to move on from
> Turtle
> > Art to ___ (insert you favorite "real" programming environment here).
> First, have Turtle Art start up not with a blank slate, but by
> bringing in one of the predefined designs -- preferably at random, so
> they'll see more of the corpus as they run it over and over.

I have gone back and forth on this one. I think that you are right: I should
start with a program on the screen, probably a simple example of a spiral
that introduces the concepts of loops and variables (and perhaps sensors).

> Second, I suggest that if some blocks are implemented in short bits of
> Python, that there be a user interface for seeing and modifying those
> short bits of Python (by examining the block in the GUI).  This will
> provide a bridge for exploring kids to notice that the blocks are
> built out of short bits of structured text -- and that they can
> understand and modify those texts.  If they've already figured out
> that they can modify the numeric blocks, then they'll try modifying
> these too.  The thing that pops the blocks open shouldn't be too hard
> to find -- perhaps a double-click, or something else that they'll do
> by accident sometime.

All of the blocks are implemented as short bits of Python. But I deferred to
the Sugar View Source mechanism for revealing the contents. I use a simple
plug-in mechanism to define blocks and palettes, but the disconnect is that
I don't (generally) edit them in line; rather, I leave that to other tools.
This was a design decision; in part my goal was to give incentive to using
Pippy and Edit rather than recreate Pippy and Edit in Turtle Art itself. But
I suppose that making it possible to change them directly in Turtle Art as
well maybe necessary. I can do it easily enough, but it adds more

> If you can implement more blocks in such bits of Python, do it, so
> they'll have more blocks they can open up and examine and modify from
> the GUI.
> How to get them beyond the TurtleArt GUI into the actual Python source
> code of the body of TurtleArt is a challenge that nobody seems to have
> insight on.  The "View Source" concept seems to have been much harder
> to implement than we all expected.

I am hoping that the recent work I have been doing on View Source -- you can
use it to make copies of the source -- may help.

> Don Hopkins worked on a PostScript-based window system (HyperLook)
> that would let you "flip over" an object on the screen to see "behind
> it" a control panel with the guts of its implementation visible.  You
> could modify those, then "flip it back" and it would resume running.
> See: http://www.art.net/~hopkins/Don/hyperlook/index.html and
> http://www.art.net/~hopkins/Don/simcity/hyperlook-demo.html .
> Looking back at HyperLook, it looks a lot like the etoys environment,
> full of object oriented code with direct manipulation gui editor
> interfaces.  It's dead now; a historical curiosity of interest only to
> prior-art searchers defeating too-obvious software patents.  It's hard
> to keep such self-contained and self-referential environments alive
> and relevant in the world at large.  I think one problem is that the
> state of the environment doesn't get kept in simple text "files" -- a
> concept of enduring value.  My old APL programs are all dead too; they
> were "objects" in "workspaces" and weren't usually stored in small,
> persistent, portable, named, modular textual representations, the way
> C or Python programs are.

This is why I am trying to get kids to leave Turtle Art behind. It is there
as a hook to get them started, but not intended to be more than a stepping

> Perhaps the key is to keep these immersive environments sufficiently
> tiny that you don't mind them dying when you turn your attention to
> something else.  Tininess also helps to make one understandable and
> modifiable by others in case they DO want to keep it going after you
> move on.
>        John
It is worth pointing out that there are some math teachers in .UY who are
using the export SVG capabilities of Turtle Art to launch their students
into more sophisticated graphing and data visualization. Not what I had
expected, but quite a good outcome nonetheless.


Walter Bender
Sugar Labs
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