This book owes its existence to the collaboration made possible by the Internet and the free software movement. Its three authors—a college professor, a high school teacher, and a professional programmer—have yet to meet face to face, but we have been able to work closely together and have been aided by many wonderful folks who have donated their time and energy to helping make this book better.
We think this book is a testament to the benefits and future possibilities of this kind of collaboration, the framework for which has been put in place by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation.
How and why I came to use Python
In 1999, the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science exam was given in C++ for the first time. As in many high schools throughout the country, the decision to change languages had a direct impact on the computer science curriculum at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, where I teach. Up to this point, Pascal was the language of instruction in both our first-year and AP courses. In keeping with past practice of giving students two years of exposure to the same language, we made the decision to switch to C++ in the first-year course for the 1997-98 school year so that we would be in step with the College Board’s change for the AP course the following year.
Two years later, I was convinced that C++ was a poor choice to use for introducing students to computer science. While it is certainly a very powerful programming language, it is also an extremely difficult language to learn and teach. I found myself constantly fighting with C++’s difficult syntax and multiple ways of doing things, and I was losing many students unnecessarily as a Preface
result. Convinced there had to be a better language choice for our first-year class, I went looking for an alternative to C++.
I needed a language that would run on the machines in our Linux lab as well as on the Windows and Macintosh platforms most students have at home. I wanted it to be free and available electronically, so that students could use it at home regardless of their income. I wanted a language that was used by professional programmers, and one that had an active developer community around it. It had to support both procedural and object-oriented programming. And most importantly, it had to be easy to learn and teach. When I investigated the choices with these goals in mind, Python stood out as the best candidate for the job.
I asked one of Yorktown’s talented students, Matt Ahrens, to give Python a try. In two months he not only learned the language but wrote an application called pyTicket that enabled our staff to report technology problems via the Web. I knew that Matt could not have finished an application of that scale in so short a time in C++, and this accomplishment, combined with Matt’s positive assessment of Python, suggested that Python was the solution I was looking for.
Finding a textbook
Having decided to use Python in both of my introductory computer science classes the following year, the most pressing problem was the lack of an available textbook.
Free content came to the rescue. Earlier in the year, Richard Stallman had introduced me to Allen Downey. Both of us had written to Richard expressing an interest in developing free educational content. Allen had already written a first-year computer science textbook, How to Think Like a Computer Scientist. When I read this book, I knew immediately that I wanted to use it in my class. It was the clearest and most helpful computer science text I had seen. It emphasized the processes of thought involved in programming rather than the features of a particular language. Reading it immediately made me a better teacher.
How to Think Like a Computer Scientist was not just an excellent book, but it had been released under a GNU public license, which meant it could be used freely and modified to meet the needs of its user. Once I decided to use Python, it occurred to me that I could translate Allen’s original Java version of the book into the new language. While I would not have been able to write a textbook on my own, having Allen’s book to work from made it possible for me to do so,
at the same time demonstrating that the cooperative development model used so well in software could also work for educational content.
Working on this book for the last two years has been rewarding for both my students and me, and my students played a big part in the process. Since I could make instant changes whenever someone found a spelling error or difficult passage, I encouraged them to look for mistakes in the book by giving them a bonus point each time they made a suggestion that resulted in a change in the text. This had the double benefit of encouraging them to read the text more carefully and of getting the text thoroughly reviewed by its most important critics, students using it to learn computer science.
For the second half of the book on object-oriented programming, I knew that someone with more real programming experience than I had would be needed to do it right. The book sat in an unfinished state for the better part of a year until the free software community once again provided the needed means for its completion.
I received an email from Chris Meyers expressing interest in the book. Chris is a professional programmer who started teaching a programming course last year using Python at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. The prospect of teaching the course had led Chris to the book, and he started helping out with it immediately. By the end of the school year he had created a companion project on our Website at http://www.ibiblio.org/obp called Python for Fun and was working with some of my most advanced students as a master teacher, guiding them beyond where I could take them.
Introducing programming with Python
The process of translating and using How to Think Like a Computer Scientist for the past two years has confirmed Python’s suitability for teaching beginning students. Python greatly simplifies programming examples and makes important programming ideas easier to teach.
Allen Downey Jeffrey Elkner Chris Meyers