From Scratch to App Inventor to Full Stack

Here comes the summertime — arguably the busiest time of the year for Hong Kong school kids. Most run a full schedule every day to juggle between holiday classes and relaxation. Nathaniel, on the other hand, seems to have mastered the art of handling both at the same time.

“It’s not a problem for me to get here every day. I really enjoy the programming classes.”

It’s 11:00 am. For the next five days, Nathaniel would stroll into the sun-lit learning space of Preface in the hustle of Tin Hau for his new Full Stack Programming class. He has just graduated from the App Inventor program which he attended throughout the whole academic year. If age is a common denominator, he is much ahead of his peers indeed.

“I started coding around 2 years ago on Scratch at school. But I quickly moved on to App Inventor after coming to Preface. It’s much cooler. It’s impressive to see how much stuff you can make with App Inventor. You can make games but also a lot of useful applications. The scale is very different.”

It’s tempting to think of Nathaniel as someone in his late teen years by the way he talks. In reality he is just 13. and very much in love with every second of gaming on his phone. How did he end up learning to code, then?

“At school we get to learn HTML, but it’s more like filling in the blanks; we practise the syntax quite a lot, but the experience is rather flat — it doesn’t explain why we write the code in certain ways. It’s just the hands-on. However, the concepts behind are really important because they build the backbone of a good program. I like how the teachers at Preface emphasize that aspect of coding. They tell us the whys, not just the what. They always make me think about the code, like a real coder.”

Back in April this year, Nathaniel was invited to take part in the Preface Nomad Easter Special project — recreating the classic easter egg game hidden in Chrome browser — “T-Rex Runner”. The game was later built into an actual arcade game console and put out at Preface Coffee for visitors to play. The whole project was to show that programming can empower anyone — even kids — to do something great.

Nathaniel coded up the game with Edison, another coding student of Preface, in just 2 hours. The outcome was great and everyone loved it. During the public showcase, it sparked a lot of interest from the grown-ups and kids who were lucky enough to try this game and see what’s behind the scene. It inspired a lot more people to start coding this summer.

That’s pretty much the level of impact we’d love an App Inventor student to achieve. Nathaniel was ready to take on a new challenge — Full Stack Programming.

Despite similarities in the fundamental concepts, Full Stack Programming is quite a step up from App Inventor, the design of which is carefully (and colourfully) put together for programming novices. Nathaniel is way past the novice stage, but Full Stack Programming is a big step up. How is he handling the challenge so far? His 1-on-1 programming coach, Mr Tommie, gave us some thoughts.

“There’s a lot of genius in him. Sometimes he is impatient for what he already knows, but that’s because he has a real thirst for things he doesn’t know, for which he wouldn’t stop drilling until he reaches the very bottom. Coaching him is fun — he has a tempo of his own. It’s very exciting to see how he learns. It’s something less noticeable when you put him in a group class.”

So, how are you handling your new challenge so far, Nate?

“It’s really HOT! It’s so different from App Inventor. But it’s so hot because it’s not easy!”

Right, we get it. Is there any application you would like to build at the moment?

“A library app for the Central Library. I visit the library quite a lot to get books. But it’s annoying when I forget my library card. Would be nice if I can store my library card in an app and use my phone to borrow books instead. I’m going away to the UK for my studies soon, but I’m coming back to Hong Kong six times a year! Maybe I can use my free time to build a prototype and test it.”

Sounds good. You know you can swing by Preface Coffee anytime when you work on your project. Drink is on us.

“Maybe I’ll come here for a Double Espresso after my visit to the Central Library. JUST JOKING! I’m more of a tea person.”

Again, it’s tempting to think of the 13-year-old as a mature person. But boy, can we ever tell?

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