How you too can build your own computer

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

As computers have gotten more complex, even tech literate users have become detached from the basics of how they function. This is what Shimon Schocken and Noam Nisan noticed with their computer science students in Israel. As Schocken explains in this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, the pair decided to have their students build a working computer, from the ground up, so that they would “understand how computers work in the marrow of their bones.” They broke down the process into a series of bite-sized, stand-alone units. While students start with building “Nand,” a simple logic gate, and they end by writing games like Pong, Snake and Tetris.

“You can imagine the joy of playing with a Tetris game that you wrote in Jack, and then compiled into machine language in a compiler that you wrote also, and seeing the result running on a machine that you built,” says Schocken in his talk. “It’s a tremendous personal triumph.”

Even though “From Nand to Tetris (aka The Elements of Computing Systems)” took their team five years to develop, Schocken and Nisan made the decision to put all parts of it online — from the chip specifications to the software tools. Thousands of people jumped at the opportunity to take the course online, some making their way through it on their own and others organizing classes with friends. The year was 2005 and “From Nand to Tetris” became the first of what are now known as MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. Schocken was surprised by the wide participation, and was thrilled that students remixed parts of the course, making video tutorials in other languages and creating their own games within the computer’s parameters (some examples after the jump).

To Schocken, the message is loud and clear. Educators don’t always need to teach per se — they can also provide a framework that allows students to experiment.

“These people could not care less about grades. They are doing it because of one motivation only — they have a tremendous passion to learn,” says Schocken. “Grading takes away all the fun from failing.”

To hear how Schocken’s parents fed his belief in self-study, and to find about his newest project making K-12 math classes all about experimentation, watch his talk. Below, find out how you can take “From Nand to Tetris” online and build your own computer.

In this introductory video, Schocken gives a detailed overview of what you’ll learn if you embark upon “From Nand to Tetris.” The course is divided into 14 topics, beginning with “Boolean Logic” and building through “Operating System.” Each topic has a lecture — available in both PowerPoint and PDF format — as well as a chapter to read and a project for the student to work on at their own pace. Get started at the online hub for the class >>

Below, some of the games students have created as their final projects.

Ben Craddock, a student at the University of Georgia, designed his computer to run entirely in “Minecraft.” His project was covered in Wired magazine.

This student incorporated letters into Tetris for their final project. The goal: type the letters before they hit your city.

And here, a Tetris-like game calls “Blox,” also created in the course.