Explaining "It’s just 1s and 0s!"

In this week’s da Vinci’s Workshop enrichment session at Wilson Focus School I helped my students understand what it means when people say "computers store everything as 1s or 0s."

This is a fact that most of us know and have likely repeated. But could you articulate what that actually means, especially to a group of 3rd - 6th grade students? It’s not easy!

I found this video produced by Code.org featuring Limor from Adafruit to be really incredible for several reasons. Not only does it provide a succinct comparison of the binary (base 2) number system vs. the decimal (base 10) system we are most familiar with, it goes further and explains how text (with ASCII), images and video (pixels with RGB), and sound (waves) can all be represented in binary.

We watched, paused, rewinded, discussed, and re-watched a few times while scribbling on a whiteboard. But at the end, students were able to translate their first name to binary. 01001110 01100101 01100001 01110100 01101111!

Let’s be honest - these concepts aren’t easy to understand or explain, especially so considering my 3rd grade students aren’t familiar with exponents yet. So really, it's a lot to digest.

But that’s okay!

I don’t expect students to leave my enrichment class as experts in any of the concepts we cover in our short weekly classes. My goal is to introduce complicated concepts to young students in an approachable and exciting way, so when opportunities to explore computer science come up later in life they have experience and confidence to continue.