Ram Rachum and his PythonTurtle project

This week we have a very special interviewee.  Israeli software developer Ram Rachum started PythonTurtle as a side project in 2009.  Focused on giving students and easy and fun introduction to real code centered around Python’s Turtle module, the downloadable Mac and Windows program is being used in classrooms around the world to get students hands-on with code.  In this interview Ram shares how he got started with PythonTurtle and some of the design philosophy behind the project.

Ram Rachum
Ram Rachum

This is part of a periodic interview series we’re doing with innovators in coding education.  You can find the other interviews in the series here.

Elliott: First of all, tell us a little about your background.  How did you get into programming?


Ram: I was always interested in computers when I was a child. Fortunately my parents noticed and appreciated that interest, and when I was in third grade they hired a private tutor to teach me programming using the BASIC language. I didn’t know any kind of programming, and that tutor taught me everything from the ground up.  Eventually I was able to write simple programs and games, all in BASIC. I was very excited in anticipation for every lesson, and gulped everything that he had to say.

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Building a Smarter Python Editor

Teachers and students from all over the world are using our Python trinket to write code in their CS, Math and Science classes. As we’ve visited classrooms using Trinket, we’ve heard requests for an even smarter python editor that helps students learn as they code. There are plenty of tutorials out there, but Trinket students and teachers want help making their own code projects, not just pre-cut examples.

So over the past few weeks we’ve quietly added key features to make our Python trinket more helpful for beginning coders. These updates include

  • Auto-complete. Inspired by Bret Victor’s idea of “creating by reacting”, Trinket’s autocomplete is designed to help students see what’s possible in Python as they code.
  • In-Editor Explanations. Python’s 20-some keywords, like if, for, def, and import, form the core of the language.  Our new contextual explanations help students learn what they are and how they’re used, right from the editor.
  • Highlighted Errors. We’ve learned that simple typos are the second most common source of error for students.  By highlighting them early, we prevent frustrating errors as students code, similar to how red sqwiggly lines help writers catch spelling errors early.

We’ve got many more exciting ideas in the works.  In the meantime, we hope these three new features help make Trinket an even more indispensable tool for coding in the classroom. Read on for a brief description of each new feature.

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JavaScript in HTML trinkets

When we first released our HTML trinkets last Fall, we were excited about providing the opportunity for teachers to teach the web. Of course HTML helps build an understanding of how to properly structure web pages and with inline CSS you can easily style pages. This separation of concerns is critical to creating basic web pages. As anyone who has put together a web site in recent memory knows though, JavaScript is the special sauce for creating engaging, dynamic sites. Today, we’ve released functionality that lets you not only use JavaScript in HTML trinkets, you can also utilize our tabbed interface to separate HTML, CSS, and JavaScript into their own files. Today you can truly teach the web using Trinket!

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Create your own Classic Text Adventure with Python

Thanks to some awesome suggestions from a few pioneering users, Trinket now supports neat text adventures.

Using our new add files feature Brian introduced a few days ago, a group of parents and teachers from SF Brightworks have made a text adventure game module that students can use to make their own classic adventure games:

Their code is in adventure.py and is imported, so it stays out of the way and students can focus on building the rooms and items in the game.

These games may be simple, but they’re a critical part of getting comfortable with text-based programming.  Many of today’s most famous programmers started out building simple text-based games, and classics like Zork and ADVENT inspired a whole generation of programmers to use computers for creative pursuits.

Using the Trinket above, see if you can alter the text of the existing locations.  Look for how the connections between locations are created and see if you can add another yourself!  Find the line where the ‘key’ is added and duplicate it to add another item in the same space.  Then press Run to see your changes updated in the game.

The coolest part of working at Trinket is seeing what creative things users are doing with code. Got an awesome project?  Get in touch.  If you’d like to help this adventure crew build their module for students, check out their github project and consider contributing!