"What will I be doing?", I asked Ed Shanahan, my supervisor at GTRI.
"Just help set up the computers and keep them running," he answered. "You'll probably need to help the students with their lab work."
"Sounds easy enough," I said. "I've had plenty of practice doing that during my VA work-study program days. Do you really think Gus can teach a bunch of Army folks how to program in Pascal in just a week?"
"I hope so," Ed said, "That's what they are paying us to do. All of the people they are sending are supposed to have prior computer experience, so it should be possible."
"There has been a change of plans," Ed said looking at me. "We'll have to divide the class in half, and you'll be teaching the people with no prior experience. Gus will continue as planned so that the experienced people get what the government paid for."
"Meanwhile, ten hours from now, I'll be lecturing to a bunch of malcontents who probably didn't even ask to be sent to this class, for eight hours a day for five days without a lesson plan," I pointed out.
"That's about the size of it," Ed laughed. "We figure you'll be lucky to be able to teach them how to turn it on in a week."
Somehow I got though that first day. The second day was better; with most of the basic concepts of computing like binary arithmetic, boolean logic, and the Von Neumann architecture having already been covered, the students seemed glad to begin learning the UCSD Pascal language that was available on the Apple II. Surprisingly, it didn't take long to cover the entire language. Pascal is, after all, designed to be a small and easy to teach language, the number of reserved words being less than 40 in most implementations.
In the next classroom, Prof. Gus Baird was giving the experienced people the full university level course in Pascal, albeit somewhat abridged. From our combined lab sessions, I gathered some of them were having a tough go of it. I believe the expression we used was "a sip from the fire hose." I never had the opportunity to sit in on one of Gus's classes, but I gather he was very knowledgeable, focused, and quite entertaining. His background of writing weapons guidance software had given him a lot of interesting stories, an appreciation for attention to detail, and a low tolerance for error prone programming habits. To him, Pascal code done right was poetry.
Meanwhile, my students were learning the basics of Input/Output using text and then binary methods. The Bell-and-Howell "Black" Apple II computers that the Army had acquired, by the clever trick of using education funds to circumvent the usual Army bureaucracy, had floppy disk drives, which made them as powerful as most small computers of the time. We quickly moved on to searching and sorting techniques, and finally user interface design. Before I knew it, Friday had come and it was time for them to take the final exam that was required to get a training certificate. Nearly three quarters of the class managed to pass the final exam.
Like others who have had the opportunity to teach, I sometimes wonder what my students did when they left the class. Did any of them go back to their posts, clutching their own floppy disk full of database source code, and create wonderful automations, and then go on to become professional programmers? Did it seem as miraculous to them as it did to me that it was possible to learn so much in such a short time? When I think back on it now, it seem hard for me to believe what can be accomplished when you don't know what can't be done.
If any of those students did go on to study programming at a university, they surely found it to be a far different experience. You can't take an advanced programming course until you have had an introductory programming course, and you can't take the intro until you have met the prerequisites. It may take a full year before they are allowed to get back to the level of that Friday. At some universities I know, they may never get beyond that basic level.
Strange as this tale sounds in these times, it wasn't unusual then. Many others tell the same story of how quickly even middle school students respond to teaching programming rather than "using computers" as we do today, and of how empowering it is to both teach and learn to take control of the computer with our own hands. We have lost the simple innocence of those early microcomputer years, mired in the complexity of modern layered software where, far from controlling the machine, you are controlled by it.