Read about the space adventures of a kid, whose self-guided path led him to programming for the greater good. At the age of 12, he knows how to code in C++, C# and Python, and still has time left for a quality play: with Legos, Kerbal Space Program and the games he builds for himself using Unity and Unreal Engine.
Andrew: I have made a game. I am making a game. I am learning two programming languages, two different software development engines, and also I’m learning math, which will probably help me.
In essence, he is a space traveler who is now doing programming because he realized he cannot barf in space. In this interview, he shares his vision of the future where astronauts collaborate with coders, his take on Elon Musk’s media image and how to learn to apply the latest game development technology to successfully land on Mars.
The backbone of Interest-Based Learning
Katia: I’ve stretched myself a bit too far while studying at the university, teaching classes and preparing for my thesis. Mind you, at the time Andy was 2. Getting pregnant with his younger brother I decided that I want to spend the early years with my kids. Not others’ kids. Even though any kids are absolutely great in my view.
The family has traveled for more than 6 years. Since he finished the first grade, Katia, Andrew’s mom has become the only teacher for Andy and his younger brother for all this time. They have decided to never return to formal schooling again.
Katia: We, as parents, specialize like that. Dad is about the brainy, techie stuff. And Mom is about the hands-on approach and physical activity. Dad is about the big ideas, philosophy, proper googling and finding the best stuff out there, be that pieces of information or top notch devices. And I’m there with cooking and everyday chores and structures, planning the learning and life choices.
Let’s say Dad is bit like an “outside” witness. And Mom is a valuable insider in activities. In all honesty I can say to the boys “I don’t know, let’s find out”. And when this path is exhausted we can check out with dad. Also they say that Dad is chill and Mom is fun ;)
Mom had an epiphany one day, particularly with her experience as a professional educator, where she realized the value lies in the learning, not in the studying. So, she went about discovering for herself: how to support the freedom of learning? And not fall into the pit of doing nothing.
Katia: I think that the most important thing is to watch kids be. To see them. And watching those guys is awesome. I mean, look at them, kids are amazing!
Watch them flip, build a rocket ship, plan a new picture… see them trying, failing, creating.
And here is what I see: learning is the biggest value and not the study about something. We have this goal of X, so let’s place some structure around this goal. To get there we need to apply some structured courses and some structured lessons. Also to actually do the drills and practice time and again every day, almost as a daily rhythm.
I value learning more than study. Still I see that they support each other. The structured meticulous studying is a part of the free-flowing learning. To fulfill your fantasy you apply some effort and some measured steps and drills. And if the effort is repetitive it turns into a rhythm. And the rhythm supports itself. So you are not wasting the effort. You rather flow on the waves right to your goal.
She came up with a routine that has some well-defined rhythms together with some unstructured time. There’s a place for repetition, longish streaks of diving into the engaging activities, letting out your inner monkey and keeping it at bay.
Katia: What’s your everyday routine?
Andrew: I don’t really have a routine. I just do what I feel like doing. Though I have a timetable. I wake up. Go to the toilet, brush my teeth, meditate, read a book, do some exercise. Well yeah, pretty much turn into a chimpanzee. Eat breakfast, go outside, plan the day, hopefully remember to do my math…every night I would literally think, ok, I go to the routine manager, and in the math exercise, just seriously, do it.
Katia: There’s just a little bit of holiday vibe that’s kind of hard to clean up afterwards.
Andrew: And then do programming until I am bored with it. When I am interested in programming, which will probably happen now with Unity, I will be programming until 10 o’clock. From 1 o’clock in the afternoon to 10 o’clock at night. I keep going until I am bored, which if it’s a good day, I will continue until 8, 7, or 10 in the evening. So, pretty much most of the day.
Katia: So when you have this opportunity to do a longer streaks of things you like to do, this allows for the freedom for him to grow more deeply into what he’s working on. If instead, you have to pursue the exact same interest in programming and then you have a History lesson in school, and some other classes, then you have to stop what you are doing abruptly, then you don’t have this kind of opportunity to grow as much and as deeply. For instance, he had an opportunity when he discovered a streak on space exploration. This then naturally extends a bit into some actual engineering, building and construction, reading, and then back to programming.
Andrew: Well, I was having a streak in programming. I will probably have it soon because it is interesting for Unity. I will make my first Numbers game. Learn C# a little bit and then start making the game.
When you think there is something interesting. Just do it. You will feel so good right away! — Andrew
Good sleep, exercise, and periods of being calm
Katia: Good sleep is important. Good rhythm in everything. At least a number of rhythmic activities throughout the day. Start your day without phones and notifications and internet. Leave some time to plan your day with a friend. Drink lots of water. Have some walks in the streets, at least. And then it supports the whole day: if I have a healthy structure, going into bed at night at normal timing, then wake up in the morning all fresh and recharged. You can do the meditation or you can just do things mindfully with intention. Along with drinking water and a nice breakfast. And only then, go into the rush of the day. And even within the rush, consider “what I would like to do” in relation to the immediate goals, and find out what are the steps to achieve it. Take some rest in the evening. It’s possible.
Andrew: I’m kind of succeeding in the “not doing math in the day” when my brain is not functioning. That is the time when my brain decides to remember it.
Katia: So, if you go into the monkey-mode in the morning, you’re in the monkey-mode in the whole day. And it’s less productive actually. If you take a little time between activities: activities; rest; activities; rest. Then those times of activities become more productive than if you go into the rush all day. And then you’re counterproductive and getting worse and worse.
Andrew: If you go to rush all the days, you will eventually get to the point thinking “whew, I did everything I want — oh wait I forgot to do everything”. So, you’re like: “what did I do today? Oh, I played video games for 10 hours straight. And forgot to do everything I want.”
Katia: So, the three steps would be: good sleep, some exercise and physical activity (Andrew: and actually doing what you planned to do), and periods of time to be calm and plan new things from a calm place.
Be calm, do what you planned and the rest sort of happens. Andrew would figure out how aerodynamics work.
Katia: How did you do it? How did you solve your problems? Okay, so I’m launching this thing and it doesn’t work. What did you read or watch around it? How did you Google it?
Andrew: I saved the craft I built in Kerbal Space Program, and I went on to do other things and realize how they work and after realized how the things work by building other things and Googling it. How aerodynamics work. How to make planes. There is a Planes 101. For any at least reasonably popular game, there will be at least one Planes 101, Rockets 101, Coasters 101.
Katia: How did you stumble across this course?
Andrew: The course? My dad bought it. I was like: I want to do programming, get me a course on Unreal Engine. Then my dad is like: here it is.
Katia: And how did you get your books?
Andrew: They were birthday presents.
And he would discuss his work and improvements with his dad.
Katia: So when you’re discussing things with your father, how do you go about it?
Andrew: I discuss what I can do; what I did; what I am doing; how I am doing it; how I think I can be doing it better; and new ideas.
Katia: And remember, this is something that’s very natural to yourself. For people other than yourself — they don’t know how you do it, and sometimes just talking it out loud in the evening. That’s what’s very interesting already.
In quest of like-minded people
Doing this kind of parenting independently is obviously not easy. And ends up pushing the adults themselves to learn and grow.
Katia: Andy is bilingual. He has friends here. It’s just he needs someone else to share from the second part of his personality, that speaks English. So, we just recently made an acquaintance, with a family to get together with. So, there is the support of the community. I find it really helpful to use this support with others to share progress, answering each other’s questions, etc. I see how this process of teaching kids independently supports the development of even the grown ups that are involved.
And finding like-minded people and friends is tough! But that is likely a fact of life, for all humans alike.
Katia: That’s what I’m doing with my project: so we have the guys exchanging in text and then we find it really useful to meet in person, or at least online with a call. Because this human presence, body language, and just emotional sharing unites and helps build a team. Andrew’s idea for going into the course was to find a teammate to create projects together. That sort of failed.
Andrew: Well, there was one person who I liked working with. There was the other grade school student, but he was kind of like a robot himself. He had the best grades in everything.
Katia: But he was kind of a “grades” person.
Landing on Mars 101
Here, we close with threw advice from Andrew for other fellow space travelers.
1. Get Chris Hadfield’s course, and do it. You will learn more about space. If you have enough brain space. I literally felt tired after watching because of the knowledge I was getting.
2. Stick to your plan. Like Kerbal Space Program — you will eventually understand at least the most basic things about rockets, planes and if you’re interested in it, you’ll learn more about it. I tried to make an abomination during lunch with a giant ship and the problem was having a massive asteroid shield in the front. And the thing I used for inspiration was made in an older version where aerodynamics did not exist, also, drag did not exist.
Did you enjoy the story? There is more!
For full transcript, click here.
We are in a constant quest for more stories like this one. If you also find that the value lies in the learning, if you like Katia’s or Andrew’s ideas, drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Some select links included in article:
 Masterclass, Chris Hadfiels: https://www.masterclass.com/classes/chris-hadfield-teaches-space-exploration
 GameDev with Unity, Unreal, Blender: https://www.gamedev.tv/
 Udemy course on Unreal Engine: https://www.udemy.com/unrealcourse/
 Udemy course on Unity: https://www.udemy.com/make-mobile-games-like-a-pro-using-unity-game-engine/
 Kerbal Space Program, the game used by Andrew and Elon Musk alike: https://venturebeat.com/2015/01/06/spacex-tesla-founder-elon-musk-loves-kerbal-space-program-mass-effect-and-civilization/
 Book by Mary Roach, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Packing_for_Mars
 Book by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries: https://www.amazon.com/Death-Black-Hole-Cosmic-Quandaries/dp/B000OV13QU
 LIGA Robotov: https://ligarobotov.ru/
 Amperka “Yodo”, the kit used after Lego Mindstorms: http://amperka.ru/product/yodo
 Lego Mindstorms: https://www.lego.com/en-us/mindstorms
 Scratch: https://scratch.mit.edu
 Book by Craig Richardson, Learn to Program with Minecraft: Transform Your World with the Power of Python: https://www.amazon.com/Learn-Program-Minecraft-Transform-Python/dp/1593276702
 The Planetary Society, with Emily Lakdawalla, and sometimes Bill Nye: https://www.omaze.com/experiences/bill-nye-falcon-heavy-2
 Birthday books: Professor Brian Cox; romancing astrophysics; science for 9 year-olds; Sapiens — quoted by just about everyone; we are ignoring the AI apocalypse; psychedelic space colors; Neil deGrasse Tyson; “Let’s squander some on Mars. Let’s go out and play.”