Computer Literacy
What is it? How do you teach/learn it? What was it like in 1980?What it should be in 2015 - a working page to collect material for a virtual exhibit.
From 1975 to 1978 LO*OP Center offered Computer Literacy Workshops in its storefront computer center and in schools. After that we gave classes at conferences and through organizations such as the Palo Alto Recreation Department and the YMCA. This page will collect material to document how LO*OP Center taught this topic and how other educators approached it.

Central to "Computer Literacy" was the role of programming in computer education. This debate is still raging today as high schools and college undergraduate computer science departments grapple with the fact that computing has become a fundamental skill for everyone. Our intent is to provide background to the current debate that will resolve conflicts over terms and contribute to a lessening of the "digital divide" that separates many contemporary communities.

(cardboard illustrative aid to computation) illustrates the operation of a computer without actually being a computer. It is a very practical aid to understanding computers and computer programming.

WikipediaGet one

CODE web site
An organization promoting computer programming in contemporary schools

The Peanut Butter and Jelly Robot

Robots are just computers with specialized peripherals like arms or visual sensors. They can look like humans or turtles or drill presses, it doesn't much matter. Robot means work or worker in Russian and some say that the term was first used by science fiction writer and science popularizer, Isaac Asimov. Because kids (and adults) are intrigued by robots we developed the Peanut Butter and Jelly Robot exercise as part of our computer literacy classes at LO*OP Center to introduce kids to programming concepts.

It goes like this: we are the science team charged with designing a robot to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the astronauts on the moon. Here's the robot (a savvy adult role plays the robot) standing in front of a table with a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, two slices of bread and a spatula. How are we going to give it instructions to make the sandwich. The kids start yelling out instructions like "pick up the knife." The teacher says, "Wait a minute. Robots are pretty dumb. This one doesn't know how to pick up the knife. Maybe we'd better start by making a set of very simple commands like 'bend arm, rotate wrist left, rotate wrist right, extend arm."

After 10 minutes or so of brainstorming an instruction set we decide to try it out in "execute immediate" mode. This means that the robot does the action when it is given rather than waiting until a whole program is loaded. The person playing the robot has to follow the instructions exactly and not add in motions that were not included in the instruction set. Usually the kids fail to have a "stop" command so when the robot extends its arm toward the jelly jar it knocks it over amid screams of "stop, stop" and peals of laughter. Even after the stop command is added we discover that scooping jelly out of a jar is a pretty complex motion. Even worse is spreading peanut butter on bread without tearing the bread up.

Regardless of whether the sandwich ever gets made or not this activity stimulates a lot of deep discussion and thinking about programming languages, construction of programs, use of sensor input and output of motor control. It sets the stage for learning any programming language. Some kids get hooked on computing and robotics right away. Others just become a little less naive about what makes computers appear to be able to behave like humans.


I got the idea for the Peanut Butter and Jelly Robot after visiting the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon, USA in about 1978. This picture is from their archives (used with permission).

Liza Loop (June 30, 2013)

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