Elliott Hauser didn’t take to coding his first time around as a Duke University undergraduate.
It wasn’t until he saw how important knowing how to program software was in the professional world that he manged to teach himself how to code. Later, while teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill, he identified with his students’ frustration in learning the widely used programming language Python.
So Hauser set about creating an easier way to teach these skills. The company he co-founded in 2013, Trinket, is now used worldwide to teach students of all ages the basics of Python using an animated turtle that responds immediately as students type in code.
The idea, he says, is to make it easy for students to learn by experimenting right away – hooking them on the experience of creating something before delving into more complex details.
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“If I focus on giving students a hands-on experience and have them make something interesting and cool on the first day of class, they’re more willing to learn,” he says. “You’d be amazed with the kinds of things kids are able to do if we just get out of their way and let them do what kids do best, which is to learn through the creative process.”
Earlier this month, Trinket was used in the Hour of Code, an initiative to bring coding skills to schoolchildren. And it’s being used in a variety of other ways, from local computer classes to a project that is allowing English schoolchildren to create programs for use on the International Space Station.
“Elliott combines a strong understanding of technology, a passion for instruction, and the charisma it takes to find a niche, widen it, and make a place for his ideas there,” says Jefferson Heard, who met Hauser though a UNC-CH program for budding entrepreneurs. “He saw the fact that learning to write software for any purpose requires hands-on training, and a sandbox that’s big enough to do something meaningful in.”
He’s part of this groundswell of people working to make these tools more accessible.
Julian Cochran, a Durham Academy teacher
Along the way, Hauser, who still teaches at UNC-CH and is completing his doctorate in informatics there, has used his ability to explain the technical to nontechnical audiences to further the cause of technical education.
He’s written articles dispelling myths about coding and encouraging the development of simple tools to learn it. His work is one local piece of a national movement to teach key skills to younger students in order to hone the country’s competitive edge.
“He’s part of this groundswell of people working to make these tools more accessible,” says Julian Cochran, a Durham Academy teacher who uses Trinket in his classes. “All you have to do is turn on the news to see that we’re kind of playing catch-up to other countries in things like cybersecurity.”
Graduate school interrupted
Hauser, who grew up in Virginia, came to the Triangle to earn his bachelor’s at Duke and then remained in Durham. Early on, he worked in real estate development, including the renovation of some downtown properties.
He left that business before the real estate crash, and explored photography and farming. His next step was as a strategy consultant, and he migrated into work with financial services. It was in those roles that his interest in software developed.
“Every job that I had was defined by the software they used,” he says. “If I didn’t know the software, I was removed from the interesting parts of the business.”
He went to graduate school to learn more, earning his master’s from UNC-CH in information science and working as a summer coder for Google. He returned to UNC-CH that fall as a Royster Fellow, and it was in that role that he conceived the idea for Trinket.
He took some time off of school to launch Trinket and expects to finish his doctorate next year. He says his hope was to get students past those initial barriers to the most rewarding parts of the coding experience.
“Getting that payoff as a learner is your fuel,” he says. “I wanted that payoff to be there up front – click, run, change it and run again.”
Breaking down barriers
Trinket uses a small turtle to teach students how to program using simple commands with a split screen; on one side are the words used to direct the turtle, while on the right side the turtle completes the tasks it’s given, such as drawing shapes or changing colors.
Hauser says their key innovation with Trinket was getting visual programs to run easily in a browser, where students can tinker and create rather than use a tutorial to make a set product.
“It works like a YouTube video,” he says. “They can share and remix it. They can edit and change it.”
He and his co-founder and chief technical officer, Brian Marks, found early support from ImagineK12, a startup accelerator that seeks to expand and improve teaching in technological topics in K-12 schools.
Cochran, the Durham Academy teacher, says Trinket allows his students to work in the way they like best – saving their work remotely and even allowing them to write code on their phones.
“They want it right now and they want it to work,” says Cochran. “It’s a full-blown development environment that is cloud-based and easy to access.”
Hasuer says his company works closely with instructors like Cochran to tweak the product, often by responding to the questions they ask in tech support chats.
Instructors can customize lessons easily. A high school instructor could assign a game with a certain number of characters and tasks, while younger children might simply create shapes.
And it’s not just for computer classes. Hauser says about half of the students who use it are in other classes, from science to creative writing.
The project with the International Space Station came through a partnership with the Raspberry Pi Foundation to make a virtual computer and upload programs that won a student competition onto the station. One such program makes the flag of the country the station is passing over appear on a screen.
Hauser says he hopes U.S. students will eventually participate also.
Hauser hopes his product can be part of the movement to break down barriers to computer science – an issue he says is partly caused by the preconceived notion that only “super mathy technical” people can code.
Since his time at Duke, coding itself has changed, with a number of programs making it more accessible and an international movement pushing more children to learn it.
“It was really this kind of good old boys club of nerdy people doing nerdy things,” he says. “The community has become a lot more diverse.”
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Born: November 1983, Virginia
Career: Co-founder and CEO, Trinket
Education: B.A. economic art history and philosophy, Duke University; M.S.I.S. information science, health informatics and research data and Ph.D., information science (expected next year), UNC-Chapel Hill
Family: Wife Erin
Fun fact: Among the more unusual uses of Trinket has been as a tool that creates what Hauser calls “computational poetry.” Try it for yourself at http://nando.com/4d6