Introduction to Computing Principles

by Nick Parlante (Nick's home page)

CS4HS pedagogy breakout:

This class explores the essential qualities of computers, how they work, what they can and cannot do, and requires not computer background at all. In this first section we'll look at the basic features of computers and get started playing with computer code.

Acknowledgement: thanks to Google for supporting my early research that has helped create this class.

Fundamental Equation of Computers

The fundamental equation of computers is:

  Computer = Powerful + Stupid

First Approximation - How Does a Computer Work?

computer running its simple instructions

But So Many Useful Features

computer vs. red-eye reduction

Programmers Make It Happen

programmer writes code to implement their feature idea

Since the computer is totally mechanical and stupid -- how do they manage to do so many useful things? The gap between the computer and doing something useful is where the human programmer creates solutions. Programming is about a person using their insight about what would be useful and how it could be done, and breaking the steps down into code the computer can follow.

Code refers to the language the computer can understand. For these lectures, we'll write and run short snippets of code to understand what the essential qualities of computers, and especially their strengths and limitations.

Experimenting with code, the nature of computers will come through very clearly ... powerful in their own way, but with a limited, mechanical quality. IMHO, this mixed nature of computers is something everyone should understand, to use them well, to not be intimidated by them.

Before Coding - Patience


Within a few hours of lecture, we'll be doing special effects with images such as the following:
toy monkey moon surface banana

But for now we just have print()!

Patience We're going to start by learning a few programming elements, and later we'll recombine these few elements to solve many problems. These first elements are simple, so they are not much to look at on their own. Be patient, soon we'll put these elements together -- like lego bricks -- to make pretty neat projects.


For this class, we'll use a variant of the language known as "Javascript", with some added features for this course. The Javascript language works in the web browser, so all of our experiments can live right in the browser with nothing else required. We'll look at just the of Javascript needed for our experiments, not the full language one would see using Javascript professionally. That said, Javascript is a real language and our code is real code. Our small programs show the important features of code, while keeping things fast and small.

1. First Code Example - Print

Here is code which calls the "print" function. Click the Run button below, and your computer will run this code, and the output of the code will appear to the right.

2. Print String

  • Note that print is recognized as a function in the code vs. the "hello" string which is just passive data (like verbs and nouns) The computer ignores the comments, so they are just a way for you to write notes to yourself about what the code is doing. Comments can be use it to temporarily remove a line of code -- "commenting out" the code, by placing a "//" to its

    Thinking About Syntax and Errors

    Syntax The syntax shown above must be rigidly followed or the code will not work: function name, parenthesis, each string has opening and closing quotes, commas separating values for a function call.

    The rigidity of the syntax is a reflection of the limitations of computers .. their natural language is fixed and mechanical. This is important to absorb when working with computers, and I think this is where many people get derailed getting started with computers. You write something that any human could understand, but the computer can only understand the code where it fits the computer's mechanical syntax.

    When writing for the computer, it is very common to make a trivial, superficial syntax mistakes in the code. The most expert programmers on earth make that sort of error all the time, and think nothing of it. The syntax errors do not reflect some flawed strategy by the author. It's just a natural step in translating our thoughts into the more mechanical language of the computer. As we'll see below, fixing these errors is very fast.

    It's important to not be derailed by these little superficial-error cases. To help teach you the patterns, below we have many examples showing typical errors, so you can see what the error messages look like and see how to fix them. For each snippet of code below, what is the error? Sometimes the error message generated by the computer points to the problem accurately, but sometimes the error message just reveals that the error has so deeply confused the computer that it cannot create an accurate error message. Firefox currently produces the most helpful error messages often pointing to the specific line with problems.

    Syntax Error Examples

    These syntax problems are quick to fix.

    Example Problem

    Change the code below so, when run, it produces the following output:

    1 2 buckle
    3 4 knock

    For the example problems shown in lecture, the solutions are available as shown below. So you can revisit the problem, practice with it, and still see the solution if you like.

    print(1, 2, "buckle");
    print(3, 4, "knock");

    > exercises