Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Many of us on the STEM Tuesday team work hard to showcase the often unsung heroes writing books that spark the imagination of young readers. But it is not often that we get to celebrate one of our own. Today we are interviewing Janet Slingerland – author Coding Creations, Coding 123 and Video Game Coding. Janet is a STEM advocate whose books have covered a wide range of non-fiction topics for k-12. The subjects include plant development, atoms and molecules, nanotechnology, military vehicles and more.
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Christine Taylor-Butler: Janet, You are a kindred spirit. We both grew up reading, writing and conducting science experiments as kids. What was the most ambitious experiment you tried as a child? Was there praise and encouragement or were your parents (like mine) a bit flabbergasted?
Janet Slingerland: When I was growing up, I did a little bit of everything. I wrote really bad poetry, played lots of instruments (everything but strings and percussion) and sang, wandered around the woods, did theater, played sports, and read A LOT. When I was really young, I remember making mud pies and performing “experiments” at the dinner table. I’m sure you can guess what my parents thought of those experiments. I’m not sure I ever got really ambitious with science experiments after that. I fell in love with math and physics in high school – that propelled me into engineering school.
CTB: Women in children’s literature aren’t often acknowledged for our technical backgrounds. You earned a degree in electrical engineering and wrote computer software before becoming a writer. Tell us a bit about that journey. What it was like writing subroutines for submarines (and other machines)!
Janet: I’m not sure I really knew what I was getting into when I went to engineering school. I loved physics and math, but the science and math I had to learn in college was at a level I had never imagined! It was in college that I wrote my first computer program. Programming (or coding) combines learning another language with logical thinking – two things I’m pretty good at. (I was almost fluent in Spanish when I graduated from high school – unfortunately, I’ve forgotten most of it since then.)
When I graduated from college, I entered the Edison Engineering Program at General Electric Aerospace. The location I worked at was originally an RCA/Victor facility – where they once made Victrola phonographs. It still specialized in communication systems, so I ended up working in both coding and codes. I programmed computers inside things like submarines, telephones, and airplanes. The programs I worked on supported secure communications – things that used cryptography to make the communications unintelligible to anyone spying on them.
I found the work incredibly rewarding. I still remember the first day we got our secure telephone system working in the lab. We were talking back and forth, and it sounded like we were just talking over a regular telephone. We spent several days convincing ourselves that our voices were being encrypted and decrypted – old encrypted systems would warp the voices so it was obvious you were not talking on a normal phone.
CTB: When I was learning coding, it was Fortran, then PL1. Computers were room sized. That was a long time ago. How much has coding changed since you were in the field? Ever think of diving back in?
Janet: My first programming language was also Fortran – Fortran 77, to be exact. My college year was one of the first that wasn’t required to program a computer using punch cards. (It was fun to see those in the movie Hidden Figures.)
When I was working, I programmed primarily in assembly language and C. Assembly language doesn’t read like a normal language. It’s designed at a very low level. Grace Hopper was one of the visionaries who felt that a computer language should read in a way that you could tell what the programmer was intending for the computer to do.
I know coding has changed a bit since I first learned it. There are a lot more languages out there, running on a lot more platforms (like cell phones and e-readers/tablets). But I think at its core, coding hasn’t changed much at all. Logic really doesn’t change over time, and a coding language is really just a tool coders use to communicate with a computer. It’s easy to learn a new tool once you know the basics.
I do sometimes feel the desire to get back to coding. There is something very satisfying in starting with just an idea and building up code that brings that idea to life.
CTB: Your books cover a wide range of topics. Why did you make the switch from engineering to writing books about STEM?
Janet: I’ve always loved books and reading. It turns out, I also always had a love of writing. I was often the person (or one of the people) who wrote the documentation for our work – whether that was a lab in school or a project at work.
I found being a woman in the field of engineering/coding to be very challenging. When I was pregnant with my 3rd child, I struggled a lot with the work environment. When he was born, I found the joys at work were too few compare to the struggles. I started following my second love – writing. My background in math, science, and engineering, and my endless curiosity made writing STEM a natural fit.
CTB: So one advantage of writing in STEM is that you are never bored. It’s a major component in the development of just about everything.
Janet: So true! I have yet to find a subject that wasn’t totally fascinating once I started learning about it
CTB: For purely selfish reasons I was fascinated by your book, Coding Creations, which covers Scratch, a free coding language for young people developed by my alma mater. I had not realized MIT’s Media Lab had a Lifelong Kindergarten Group division. Did you have an opportunity to experiment with Scratch while writing the book?
Janet: Absolutely! The first thing I had to do for Coding Creations was to decide on what computer language we would use. I tried out a few, including Scratch and Python – two free coding languages. (I didn’t want money to be a barrier that would keep a curious kid from learning about coding.)
A lot of people dismiss Scratch because it is a block coding language. Each command is represented by a block you connect together to build a program. Scratch doesn’t let you put the blocks together in a way that won’t work. In traditional coding languages, you have to use the proper syntax – you need to spell commands correctly, give them the correct inputs, and use the proper punctuation – in order for it to work. Sometimes, a simple error in syntax can take a long time to figure out.
When I was working with Scratch for the book, I realized it’s actually a very powerful language. It has some limitations, but there are ways to work around most of them. It also works on many different platforms. You don’t even need to download it onto your computer – you can work with it online, if you have a reliable internet connection. That means you can work on your code from different computers if you have to.
My kids used Scratch when they were in school. One of the things that frustrated them is that they were given a lot of time to “play around.” Unfortunately, they didn’t really know much about coding and didn’t feel comfortable playing around with it. My goal with Coding Creations was to introduce readers to Scratch so they would be comfortable playing around with it. Not only did I want to give them a taste of what they could do with it – animation, music/sound, drawing, and coding – but I wanted them to see what other resources were available from Scratch so they could explore more on their own.
CTB: For students interested in video games as a career, your book on Video Game Coding might serve as a launching point for exploring careers. At my daughter’s college, for instance, students in the video games division had a 100% rate of employment at graduation. If you had to do it again, would you code video games? Or better, what’s your favorite if you play them?
Janet: I wrote the Video Game Coding book mainly because I have a son who is interested in coding – specifically in video game coding. I wanted to learn how video game coding was similar to and different from the coding I did. As I suspected, the basics are pretty much the same, but there are differences in the details – and, of course, in how fun the end result is.
I think a lot of young gamers imagine video game coding to be a very glamorous career. While I’m sure it has its moments of fun and glamour – it’s like all other programming careers. It’s a lot of work and long hours.
All of my kids are big gamers. My favorite video games are puzzle and word games. I’ve tried playing games with my kids, and it’s pitiful – I have no idea what I’m doing. If it’s a game where you lose lives, I die VERY quickly. I could probably get into something like Animal Crossing (one of my daughter’s favorite games), but I honestly prefer to read.
CTB: One of the things I love about your website is that you include resources to pair with each book. For instance, for your graphic novel on The Secret Life of Plants, you list not only links to science experiments, but a plant detective game, and the world carrot museum. Whats one of the most unusual or fascinating resources you encountered?
Janet: That’s a really tough question. In addition to writing, I do a lot of work with scouts. When my daughter was younger, I was a Girl Scout leader. Now, I’m a Scouts BSA merit badge counselor. For that and for STEM Tuesday, I’m always looking for new ways to engage with or learn about things.
There are a few things that pop into my head as being unusually compelling – and the World Carrot Museum is definitely up there. Another is the Molecularium Project – which was put out by one of my alma maters, Rensselaer – https://www.molecularium.com. It’s like a video game where you can explore molecules.
I also love PhET – https://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulations. This site is filled with simulations that illustrate just about every math and science concept you can think of. For instance, here’s one that shows how people see color: https://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/color-vision . It shows that seeing color actually involves more that one science – it involves the physics of light and the biology of the human eye.
CTB: People often conflate STEM with pushing young people into careers in coding. Your book Sports Science and Technology was an excellent example of how STEM is used everywhere, including careers that might dovetail with a person’s real interest. For instance, part of helping a gymnast improve their skill is understanding physics. What one thing fascinated you as you researched sports related applications for STEM?
Janet: I think we need to stop thinking putting things in bins. People think they’re either artsy or mathematical. They’re either sporty or sciencey. There are crossovers in everything.
My father was a gym teacher. Growing up, I played field hockey, volleyball, and track and field. I also marched in marching band. It amazed me that people didn’t view it as a sport – it was just as physically demanding as the other sports I participated in.
I think what fascinated me the most while researching my Sports Science books was how old the idea of sports science is. These ideas started long, long ago, when gladiators were fighting in the Roman coliseum. What’s kind of amazing is how long it took for those ideas to catch on in modern-day sports.
Janet: A few years ago, I wrote a 12-book series about the weird creatures in the world. The books were delayed, and then 2020 happened. I hope I get to see them in print before too much time goes by. I have another book coming out in 2021 from The Child’s World called Quiet vs. Loud. This book helps young readers learn about the physics of sound.
There are a few other books I’m working on. Hopefully, I’m able to get some publishers as excited about them as I am. I call one of them a SHTEAM book – it adds history to science, technology, engineering, art, and math – all related to an object so common people barely notice it anymore.
Win a FREE copy of “Coding Creations” or “Video Game Coding”.
Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.
Janet Slingerland studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Drexel University. She has written many science books for children, including The Secret Lives of Plants!, which was named a Top 40 YA nonfiction book by the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. Janet lives in Mount Laurel, New Jersey with her husband, three kids and a dog named “Rocky.”