Hello World or How My Career Started with a TI83 Calculator

The Hello World text is synonymous, for developers, with the start of a new project, and often a new technology. The simple phrase has a long history as a starting block for software development and testing.

A Personal Journey

My first experience with coding and development was in the fourth grade. Every month my school would hand out a short packet from Scholastic with books and other items for sale (a brilliant way for Scholastic and the school to make some money off kids, right!). In one catalogue I discovered a computer “game” which would teach kids the programming language BASIC while building video games.

As a kid who loved playing video games and was into art I jumped at the chance to get into the world that I loved so much. My parents were supportive in my effort and purchased the software for me.

However, the program was a huge disappointment to me. The program came with pre-built games for testing and editing as well as the ability to build from scratch, but there was a dichotomy in what was being taught. On one end of the spectrum you could modify snippets of pre-existing game code to change gameplay functionality (variables like speed, names, and numbers), or you could attempt to build a brand new game from scratch. There was no how, no lesson plans, no building up of knowledge.

As can be imagined my dreams of building lightsaber games and RPGs were crushed. I played around with the program for a while but quickly became bored and frustrated.

The Story Continues

My second run in with development came with the availability of the internet in our house and a fascination with the World Wide Web. I discovered that it was possible to create a personal website and put it online for the world to see, cool! But I had no idea how to make this happen, and my attempts did not get far or last long.

The only way I knew to create a website at the time was with Microsoft Word, so that was my medium. The few websites I created (none were ever online) were basic, simple text and table based designs, mostly about video games and comic books.

An Unexpected Breakthrough

High school introduced a new subject in my life that would forever change me, and it wasn’t geometry, chemistry, art class, or music – it was the TI83 Plus Graphing Calculator, required for all high school math classes and the bane of many teachers. I can honestly say that I may not be the person I am today if it was not for the TI83 graphing calculator.

The TI83 graphing calculator was like the iPhone to the pre-iPhone generation. It had all the necessities that made it useful in a classroom, like calculations, graphing points, complex math – as well as offering students other illicit activities like stashing text documents with answers and playing video games, many of which I played. But the most important game was Drug Wars.

Drugs Wars was a text based game, unlike most games, and therefore it was possible to open the program and read the source code. The first steps of exploration were changing the source code – names and variables – as I gained familiarity with the programing language.

As my knowledge of the TI83 programing language grew I began building simple programs to run math equations, work chemistry problems, and then build games. Often times I would spend my time in math class writing programs to do exactly what the teacher was covering at the moment. And the crazy thing is that I usually understood the subject better because of the programs I created. I had one teacher, Mr. Taylor for Chemistry, who actually encouraged us to use our TI83 to create programs that would automate what we were learning.

Of course I didn’t only write useful programs for the classroom, my other creations included:

  1. The Matrix Virus – I create a virus for the TI83 which, when run, would output strings of zeros and ones, similar to the screens on The Matrix, in a never ending loop. The device would seem to not function, but the program could be ended by pressing the Esc button.
  2. Harvest Moon – I was a big Harvest Moon fan, so I built a TI83 Harvest Moon/Drug Wars mashup. The game was similar to Drug Wars in that it was a turn based game. The player would decide what crops to plant and sell before, make money, and pay off a loan.
  3. Chrono Trigger RPG – My greatest creation was an RPG like battle game. I built a turn based battle system with four different characters, items, magic, health points, attacks, defense, the works! It was crazy, and I spent an entire semester of gym classes writing notes and pushing code on my TI83.

A Robot Teacher

So what is the take away from this little story? It’s that sometimes the most influential factor is not the direct course work but an unexpected sideshow. Did I learn geometry and history and chemistry in highschool? Some, yes, but 10 years later how beneficial has it been to me and what percent of the knowledge have I retained? Very little.

But my obsession with the TI83 did ignite a spark in me that lead me down a path to my future studies in college and later a career that I love. I could say more about the TI83 as an educational device but instead I will direct you to a great article by Phil Nichols entitled Go Ahead, Mess With Texas Instruments. Phil outlines his history with the TI83, its impact on his future, and talks about modifying the TI83 Mario game.

I know many others have had similar experience with the TI83 as an educational tool, including Dann Berg. If you have similar stories I would love to hear about them, leave a comment or find me on Twitter at @calebsylvest.

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