Learning to code opens up magical new worlds

Prepare yourself for the future, have fun and learn logic and problem-solving by taking up coding

Every child knows computers are fun. When I was a child, I played with a Commodore 64. Unlike the click, swipe, touch of today's computers, this one just sat there with a blank screen waiting for you to make it do something. I used to like entering programmes that made coloured squares move around the screen. It felt like the height of sophistication.

Computing technology has grown to occupy a place of social and commercial importance unimaginable 20 years ago. (Just imagine the bewilderment had a youngster in the 1990s told her parents she was going to work for a company that relays short messages and pictures to nobody in particular.)

Its application has spread into every field: scientists are analysing masses of data; film-makers and animators are creating ever-more realistic effects; fortunes are made and lost in milliseconds in stock-market trading; digital art is increasingly important; and a good website has become essential to almost any business, whether or not it sells online.

These days some toddlers are more adept at handling an iPad than their parents. Despite this high exposure to computers, many young people are missing out on the opportunity to discover how to really play and learn with computers. Although we can do so much so easily, we usually only point and click and choose from the options presented to us. The real excitement comes in learning how to make these marvellous machines do something new. It could even make a rewarding summer project.

There's a special kind of fun in getting creative with computers and inventing your own rules. When you start programming a computer, whether it is to customise a version of Flappy Birds or to crunch numbers like a pro (http://tryr.code school.com), you are at the same time learning broadly applicable skills such as creative problem-solving, inventiveness and logical thinking. The kind of skills, in fact, that we would hope most people would learn in school. What better preparation for an ever-changing future?

If you are one of those people who enjoys puzzles – cryptic crosswords, sudoku or Martin Gardner's beautiful, fun and infuriating logic puzzles – then you are likely to enjoy the figuring-it-out that is part and parcel of coding.

Join the club

There's a growing movement of teach-yourself computing. CoderDojos have sprung up first around Ireland and now in 42 other countries around the world. These free coding clubs allow young people to learn from each other. There are also lots of free online learning resources, such as those at learn.code.org or codecademy.com.

In this way, young people (and some not so young) are learning how to make games, websites and even apps. They can learn in whatever order they want, skip bits they aren’t interested in, and choose when, where and how often to practise. They do it not because it is compulsory or laden with prescribed learning objectives, but because it is fun.

Of course, some people prefer the physical to the digital. You know the kind of person I mean: the one who gets a special thrill in fixing the old clock that even the supposed specialists have given up on, or the one who does all his own plumbing and electrics. Why buy something when you can build it yourself?

Raspberry Pi is a pared-back computer system about the size of a credit card. It’s as basic as it gets, and it has become very popular for teaching computer science. Like the early computers, these are a blank slate for your ideas, your trials and your errors. There’s a large online community of experts to draw on, with tutorials in things such as how to use your Raspberry Pi to build a stop-motion animation kit or how to connect it up to a robotic arm.

For more bells and whistles (and lights) there is Arduino. These small programmable electronics kits can be set up to respond to various environmental inputs such as light or touch. Suggested projects in the starter kit include a “love-o-meter”, which measures the heat in your fingertips, as well as a mechanical animation, but the possibilities are endless.

So, what will be the next great innovation, or the coolest job in 20 years’ time? Nobody knows. But you can prepare yourself well with the logical thinking and practical problem-solving that goes along with coding. Just remember, if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.

Aoife McLysaght is a professor in genetics in Trinity College Dublin, where she leads a research group focusing on identifying and interpreting the evolutionary patterns in animal genomes