Announcing Wolfram Programming Lab
January 19, 2016 — Stephen Wolfram
I’m excited today to be able to announce the launch of Wolfram Programming Lab—an environment for anyone to learn programming and computational thinking through the Wolfram Language. You can run Wolfram Programming Lab through a web browser, as well as natively on desktop systems (Mac, Windows, Linux).
I’ve long wanted to have a way to let anybody—kids, adults, whoever—get a hands-on introduction to the Wolfram Language and everything it makes possible, even if they’ve had no experience with programming before. Now we have a way!
The startup screen gives four places to go. First, there’s a quick video. Then it’s hands on, with “Try It Yourself”—going through some very simple but interesting computations.
Then there are two different paths. Either start learning systematically—or jump right in and explore. My new book An Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language is the basis for the systematic approach.
The whole book is available inside Wolfram Programming Lab. And the idea is that as you read the book, you can immediately try things out for yourself—whether you’re making up your own computations, or doing the exercises given in the book.
But there’s also another way to use Wolfram Programming Lab: just jump right in and explore. Programming Lab comes with several dozen Explorations—each providing an activity with a different focus. When you open an Exploration, you see a series of steps with code ready to run.
Press Shift+Enter (or the button) to run each piece of code and see what it does—or edit the code first and then run your own version. The idea is always to start with a piece of code that works, and then modify it to do different things. It’s like you’re starting off learning to read the language; then you’re beginning to write it. You can always press the “Show Details” button to open up an explanation of what’s going on.
Each Exploration goes through a series of steps to build to a final result. But then there’s usually a “Go Further” button that gives you suggestions for free-form projects to do based on the Exploration.
When you create something neat, you can share it with your friends, teachers, or anyone else. Just press the button to create a webpage of what you’ve made.
How We Got Here
I first started thinking about making something like Wolfram Programming Lab quite a while ago. I’d had lots of great experiences showing the Wolfram Language in person to people from middle-school-age on up. But I wanted us to find a way for people to get started with the Wolfram Language on their own.
We used our education expertise to put together a whole series of what seemed like good approaches, building prototypes and testing them with groups of kids. It was often a sobering experience—with utter failure in a matter of minutes. Sometimes the problem was that there was nothing the kids found interesting. Sometimes the kids were confused about what to do. Sometimes they’d do a little, but clearly not understand what they were doing.
At first we thought that it was just a matter of finding the one “right approach”: immersion language learning, systematic exercise-based learning, project-based learning, or something else. But gradually we realized we needed to allow not just one approach, but instead several that could be used interchangeably on different occasions or by different people. And once we did this, our tests started to be more and more successful—leading us in the end to the Wolfram Programming Lab that we have today.
What’s Possible Now
I’m very excited about the potential of Wolfram Programming Lab. In fact, we’ve already started developing a whole ecosystem around it—with online and offline educational and community programs, lots of opportunities for students, educators, volunteers and others, and a whole variety of additional deployment channels.
Wolfram Programming Lab can be used by people on their own—but it can also be used by teachers in classrooms. Explain things through a demo based on an Exploration. Do a project based on a Go Further suggestion (with live coding if you’re bold). Use the Elementary Introduction book as the basis for lectures or independent reading. Use exercises from the book as class projects or homework.
Wolfram Programming Lab is something that’s uniquely made possible by the Wolfram Language. Because it’s only with the whole knowledge-based programming approach—and all the technology we’ve built—that one gets to the point where simple code can routinely do really interesting and compelling things.
It’s a very important—and in fact transformative—moment for programming education.
In the past one could use a “toy programming language” like Scratch, or one could use a professional low-level programming language like C++ or Java. Scratch is easy to use, but is very limited. C++ or Java can ultimately do much more (though they don’t have built-in knowledge), but you need to put in significant time—and get deep into the engineering details—to make programs that get beyond a toy level of functionality.
With the Wolfram Language, though, it’s a completely different story. Because now even beginners can write programs that do really interesting things. And the programs don’t have to just be “computer science exercises”: they can be programs that immediately connect to the real world, and to what students study across the whole curriculum.
Wolfram Programming Lab gives people a broad way to learn modern programming—and to acquire an incredibly valuable career-building practical skill. But it also helps develop the kind of computational thinking that’s increasingly central to today’s world.
For many students (and others) today, Wolfram|Alpha serves as a kind of “zeroth” programming language. The Wolfram Language is not only an incredibly powerful professional programming language, but also a great first programming language. Wolfram Programming Lab lets people learn the Wolfram Language—and computational thinking—while preserving as much as possible the accessibility and simplicity of Wolfram|Alpha.
I’m excited to see how Wolfram Programming Lab is used. I think it’s going to open up programming like never before—and give all sorts of people around the world the opportunity to join the new generation of programmers who turn ideas into reality using computational thinking and the Wolfram Language.