I have a group of students with a very shaky understanding of functions and their purpose (encapsulation, reuse, modularization). The assignments I give them require them to write simple functions that return boolean T/F, an integer or a simple Python object (str, list, etc.), then have the caller use the returned value in a print statement. Their programs are written in Python and run from the Windows command line. The problem is that from the command line, the programs work but if you look inside it's a mess. The functions ignore the parameters to reach into the main for global variables (misunderstand the idea of parameter passing), the input validity checking is done in the caller (defeating the idea of encapsulation, e.g is day of month valid for a given month), or the function prints the result without returning anything. The worst that I get is the function does all the work of the main and of the function, for example when asking for a simple function to add 1 to its argument, I get:

def add1(x):
    myval = int(input("Number?"))


...which of course is nonsense.

Here's my question... Can I craft an exercise that calls a simple function like add1() that would give a dramatically wrong output, e.g. cause the screen to "blow" up if the function printed instead of returned, or stalled if it kept asking for input. I'm thinking of something that reads a large file of text or numbers.

The students are at the community college level and are not programmers -- they are in electronics technology (and some are convinced that there is no software involved in electronics). I use Python but this is (mostly) language independent (I see the same shaky understanding with C++ functions in the Arduino world in another course).

Thanks in advance --Louis

  • Something that reads from stdin and writes to stdout (I am hopelessly dating myself here) is a good exercise. Next thing you know, they'll be dealing with stream processing of big data. – Scott Rowe Oct 28 at 1:10
  • @ScottRowe Hmm, yes. In fact they will eventually be dealing with IoT concepts and aggregating data from multiple sensor "things". – Louis B. Oct 28 at 19:11
  • And you didn't even need to throw "the book" (Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs) at them! – Scott Rowe Oct 28 at 21:57
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Instead of an example, use a metaphor. Get yourself a frisbee - ultimate disk and two packs of sticky notes. You are the caller of a function. Another person is the function itself. Write a value on the sticky note and stick it to the frisbee. The pass it to the function (person). The person catches the disk, and replaces the stick note with a new one with a new computed function value. They then return the disk to you. You get the computed value and announce it.

Without the return value you get nothing. You can use any function you like but zero or one arguments is the easiest to manage.

A slightly more sophisticated version can be used to discuss pass by value and pass by reference.

Due to Mike Clancy of UCBerkeley. It is a classic from many years ago.

  • 1
    I've tried something like that but without the physical object. Scenario: we're both working late in the electronics lab and I forgot my calculator. I call out to you, Hey Fred, what's the square root of 4? You return the result of the computation, It's 2! I called the function by name, Fred, passed a value and waited for a returned value. The function didn't care what problem I was solving, and I the caller didn't care how the answer was computed. – Louis B. Oct 27 at 1:13

I saw the light at the end of the fiber optic cable as soon as you said that these are students of electronics. There is nothing more modular and encapsulated than that! Software is simply electronics without the hardware part.

If you said to them, "What are the building blocks of a simple AM radio receiver?" they would (hopefully) reply something like: antenna, tuning, rectification, filter, audio output... A crystal radio has all of those. They already know that it is pointless to build the antenna in to the filter, or duplicate the tuning parts more than once. They know that they can work in teams to produce parts that fit together to make a complete radio.

So speak to them in a language they already know: the functional relationship of parts and wholes. Using globals instead of parameters would be like having extra cables going outside the radio to connect different parts of it to the signal path or the power supply. Can you say "Rube Goldberg"? I knew you could.

Man, let me teach them. I have been studying electronics on my own since before anyone I knew even had seen a computer. Electronics students should be the easiest audience in the world to teach programming to. Use examples they already know.

  • I am sure to draw fire from the community by talking about Software in terms of real-world things, instead of explaining it as a closed, hermetic universe entirely consisting of concepts unrelated to anything the students have encountered before. – Scott Rowe Oct 27 at 14:39
  • 1
    Bingo! And no, you won't get flak from me for mixing electronics and software. I deal in embedded systems and a system diagram can be any of pure hardware, pure software or a mix (e.g. state machine, FPGA). – Louis B. Oct 28 at 18:59

You can call the function using the python unit test framework and run different tests against it. Simple print-statements and other things will most probably no longer work.

  • Exactly, I use pytest though, it's simpler. pytest errors out if there is unexpected output when importing the module. The problem is not in detecting their mistakes, those are pretty obvious, the real problem is that they persistently don't get it! – Louis B. Oct 27 at 1:18

If classes are guns, functions are sort of like bullets. Not a guns take the same rounds, not all classes have the same functions. But some classes can have the same base classes therefore have some similar functions; some guns have the same manufacturer and take the same bullets. Instances of a class can call functions, just as a gun can shoot bullets. Maybe thats why call of duty calls it "create a class"...

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