Sunday, March 27, 2011

Homeschool Programming, Inc: KidCoder Series ~ A Review

Do your kids love computers and video games?  Mine sure do!  They also like to know how things work.  Sometimes their favorite part of a movie is the behind the scenes footage in the special features, and their favorite books tend to be non-fiction.

When I was given the opportunity to work with the Homeschool Programming KidCoder Course I knew it would probably be a great fit for my boys.  KidCoder is a computer science course designed by homeschooling parents especially for homeschooling families.  The KidCoder Series is for use with students in Grades 4-8.   There is a Windows Programming Course, and a Game Programming Course.  Both use Visual Basic as the platform.   This is a good program for beginners, and  perfect for helping kids write their very own computer programs!

I liked the curriculum very much.  It started by discussing the very first computers.  We read through the history of how computers have changed from that enormous machine to the hand held devices we have today.  Basic vocabulary was also included so that students would be familiar with computer terminology as well as some easy programmer -speak.

I reviewed the First Edition.  Both Courses came with a Student Textbook, and a Teacher Edition.

There were also discs that had helpful files, too.  If the text was confusing, we could go back to the disc, and watch a short file that showed us the steps to achieve our solutions.  The course could be completed by a diligent student on his own, but I think that would apply best to older students.   My boys are fifth graders, and needed quite a bit of guidance.

The lessons weren't difficult.  They go step by step and are quite clear  - but the keystrokes have to be exactly right.  I also like to take the opportunity to reinforce the concepts behind the code we are writing rather than just type it in.

It is probably worth mentioning here that last month, a new, second edition was released.  It covers the same material, but it reflects upgrades to the Visual Basic software, and discs with instructional videos are now available for purchase as a supplement to the texts.

Each course is meant to cover a semester's worth of work.  The Windows Programming is Twelve Chapters, and the Game Programing is fourteen chapters.  The chapters are broken down into individual lessons.  Key concepts and facts are usually highlighted.  At the end of each chapter, there is a review section in the student text, and a test with answer key is available  in the teacher edition.  These help to reinforce the main concepts covered.

When we finally began programming, we did the most basic things;  We made simple forms adding labels and buttons, and we changed some of the properties and text.  Here is a screenshot example.  Some of the work is visible behind the finished app .

The course continues on to teach data types, variables, flow control, different types of input, loops, strings, debugging and simple functions.  The last chapter puts it all together to make a simple Pong game.

Here you can see the game and a little bit of the code used to develop it.   We got to tweak the game around a little bit, too.

If you're interested in details, Check out the website to see more examples.  There are testimonials and videos which will give you a great idea of how the course works.

We have not gotten very far in the Game Programmer book yet.  It's a bit more involved.  The lessons are set up in a similar fashion with the information given, an activity, review and a test.  Each lesson also has at least one screencast which is a short video that shows the activity done step by step.  These are very helpful.

The course starts with a review chapter, then begins examining some of the more basic elements of video games.  The activities start out easy - bouncing lines and dancing squares, but as the course progresses, we will be integrating animation and sprites, logic and sound, some artificial intelligence, and game physics.  The final project will be a chain reaction game that includes most of these concepts.

Some of the games are Blowing Bubbles:

And Go Fish:

In addition to the KidCoder Series , there is a TeenCoder Series for students in grades 9-12.  The TeenCoder program uses C#, and covers topics in a bit more depth.

For more information about this curriculum, visit the Homeschool Programming website at  www.HomeschoolProgramming.com You can also find Homeschool Programming on Facebook. The number to call for customer service is 1-888-606-7263

The programs are available for purchase through the website.  Buying just Windows Programming or just the Game Programming will cost $70.00, and the optional instructional video discs are $30.00 when purchased separately.   (TeenCoder texts are $75.00)

If you choose to buy the bundle with both programs, it will be $120.00, and the optional instructional videos for both together are $45.00.  The TeenCoder bundle is $130.00, and the videos are also $45.00.

Please note...  Instructional Videos are not replacements for the Textbook Kits! They are supplemental in nature. The Textbook Kits are required in order to complete the course!

I think this is a great course.  It's geared for children, and I think any parent would feel comfortable teaching it.  It's very parent - supportive.  Any time I felt I wasn't sure about something, the book or the disc was able to make it clear to me.

What you will need to use these programs  (in addition to basic comfortability with computers) :

In order to run Visual Studio 2010 Express (which is free) your student should have access to a computer that has the following minimum requirements:
  • A CPU of at least 1.6Ghz
  • At least 1024MB of RAM
  • A display monitor with 1024 x 768 or higher resolution
  • A graphics card supporting DirectX-10 or later
  • A 5400+ RPM hard drive with 3GB or more free space
  • A DVD-ROM Drive
Supported Operating Systems:
  • Windows XP + SP3 or above (except Starter Edition)
  • Windows Vista + SP2 or above (except Starter Edition)
  • Windows 7 (all versions)
You will need an Internet connection at least during the initial Visual Studio download and installation process.  it wasn't needed during the programming  portion of the course.

As you can probably see, the software is NOT Mac compatible.

The student textbooks are non-consumable, and may be shared or copied for use with more than one student within the same family.  Co-ops or classrooms must have a student text for each child.

My only complaint was having to wrestle with the textbook.  In order to input code correctly, the text was needed, but the pages needed to be weighted down, and the book, in an open position on the the computer desk hung over the side and sometimes fell down.  I would love to see these come spiral bound.  Thankfully, this is easily remedied by going to my local office supply chain store and having them do it for me.

Some of my fellow TOS CrewMates also reviewed KidCoder and TeenCoder.  We will be posting our reviews today.
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**As a member of the TOS Crew, I received this curriculum to use in our home for the purpose of completing an informed blogged review.  I was not compensated and my opinions are my own.