Facebook Engineer Carlos Bueno does more than work on the world’s largest social network. Bueno is the author of Lauren Ipsum, a novel about computer science and critical thinking, aimed at kids, and the book is being used in classrooms worldwide.
Bueno is also part of the Champions of Change program run by the White House, and he wrote a blog post for the White House, emphasizing the importance of educating children on the basics of computer science and technology.
Bueno spoke with AllFacebook about Lauren Ipsum and the thinking behind the novel.
AF: Has Facebook as a company or any of your co-workers at Facebook contributed to your efforts to promote technology education for children?
CB: Facebook is stupendously supportive of extracurricular projects. Some people build model helicopters, some people juggle or paint murals on the walls, and some people write. Co-workers with children or nieces and nephews were among the first fans, and they helped spread the book through word-of-mouth. I also leaned heavily on my friends for technical review. Only one known “bug” made it into the first edition.
AF: What has the response been from parents and educators?
CB: A lot of parents have taken it up as a bedtime story, for children a lot younger than I expected. The feedback and fan letters have been almost entirely enthusiastic. Programmers who are parents often say they finally feel able to clearly explain what it is they do and how.
Teachers have been equally excited, and they often ask for extra material to help build a curriculum around the book. Another surprise was which teachers are using it. I’ve come across three or four professors using Lauren Ipsum in university-level computer science courses and teacher training.
AF: You said in your blog post that you and your wife looked for concepts that could be explained to a nine-year-old, but what age groups do you target?
CB: Age nine is kind of a sweet spot for education. It’s just old enough to grasp some very sophisticated ideas, yet young enough to retain the boundless enthusiasm and imagination of childhood. If you think about it, a large number of the books loved and read by all ages of people started out as a story for the typical third-grader.
AF: What prompted you to take the novel approach (pun intended) of a novel and go the fiction route instead of a more nonfiction, how-to style?
CB: Two reasons, or rather I did it because it felt right and made up two reasons later.
First, I wanted to show some of the magic and fun of what we might call computational thinking. It’s not about dry how-to knowledge; it’s a point of view, a way of looking at the world from a different angle. It’s about showing how familiar things have a magic behind them. For instance, the game of 20 questions embodies an extremely useful algorithm called binary search. Once you understand that, you can apply it more generally and look for more things in the world like it.
The second reason was that storytelling is an effective way to change minds and behavior on a broad scale. Stanford University now has a Quidditch team, so you can’t tell me fiction doesn’t have the power to affect institutions. The trick is to pick more useful payloads.
If you truly want an idea to become mainstream, it has to become part of stories and songs and games. That’s where the mainstream lives. Every basic life skill has a nursery rhyme about it, from cooking to crossing the street. We have songs about the alphabet because universal literacy is a fundamental cultural goal. The day we start teaching children songs about data structures is the day we’re finally serious about universal computer literacy.