From animated animals to algorithmic art: Tynker wants to turn kids into creative coders

Bill Gates’ first program may have been for tic-tac-toe, but the next generation of tech titans is getting a chance to learn coding by building projects that are even more creative – and colorful.

Over the past few months, Mountain View, Calif.-based Tynker has been piloting its visual programming language with about 25 elementary and middle schools in the Bay Area. On Thursday, the startup said it was opening up its product to teachers across the country.

Inspired by Scratch, a visual programming language developed at MIT, as well as SNAP!, another programming language based on Scratch and created at Berkeley, Tynker gives kids an engaging web-based way for learning the concepts behind coding.

Instead of learning to program by staring at this:

computer code

Kids using Tynker, learn with this:

Tynker coding

That drag-and-drop approach, in which kids code by connecting colorful, digital blocks in a Lego-like way, was first developed by Scratch. The language launched in 2007 and has inspired an active community of young coders around the world (its website says kids around the world have created more than 3 million projects with Scratch).

“Today’s kids are exposed to so much technology – from the Internet to YouTube to Google to mobile technology – that the become passive consumers,” said Krishna Vedati, Tynker’s co-founder and CEO. “We want to make the active makers and creators.” The company, which launched in 20120, has raised $3.45 million in angel funding from investors including Felicis Ventures, 500 Startups, New School Ventures, New Enterprise Associates and GSV Capital.

Other companies have also built on the Scratch concept with visual programming languages intended to help kids learn or make coding more accessible to a wider audience, including Hopscotch, which takes a mobile app approach to teaching young students, and Google’s Blockly.

But Vedati said Tynker was built on HTML5 standards so that it can be used in any browser without needing Flash, and it added a physics engine and other programming concepts. He also said that instead of just providing kids with a visual language and an open playground for building, Tynker includes a tutoring system that guides students through the different concepts and it tests them along the way, with interactive puzzles.

“It understands where kids are in terms of proficiency and then gives them the next level of content,” he said.

Kids start with the basics – like learning how to make a cartoon dog walk 10 steps across the screen or how to make an animated butterfly follow the cursor.

tynker butterfly

But, over time, they can learn to construct stories, build games and interactive cards and create flower-like images based on fractals. As they move beyond elementary school and middle school, Vedati said, the program transitions them out of a visual programming language into traditional Javascript.

Tynker fractal tree

Given how little computer science education is offered in schools – according to the non-profit, less than 2 percent of students study programing and it’s not even offered at 90 percent of U.S. schools – Tynker is starting with the education market, not parents (although that will come later).  It has developed a curriculum, which it beta-tested with teachers already teaching basic programming. And it provides teachers with classroom management tools that enable them to monitor students’ progress, assign lessons and grade projects. Because it’s a cloud-based program, kids can work on projects at school and at home.

The standard product, which schools can use in dedicated computer science classes, after-school or lunch clubs or as part of math and science classes, is free to schools. It also offers a premium version that gives teachers access to advanced lesson plans and puzzles, the capability to view how entire classes, as well as individual students, are progressing, and a bigger media library for more extensive programs. While Vedati declined to provide specifics on pricing, he said it will be “well below” the $130 price tag of the average textbook and will depend on the number of seats purchased for a class.

“[It’s] a system that helps kids, in a guided way, to address the complexity of programming, so they can go from crawl to walk to run mode,” Vedati said.  “It takes into consideration how kids learn in a classroom and what happens outside of the classroom [so] they can explore their creativity and their own ideas.”