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From Nand to Tetris in 12 Steps

Shimon Schocken IDC Herzliya 4pm Tuesday 3rd July 2007 Room 2511, JCMB, King's Buildings

We present a new approach and a course that aims to demystify the integrated function of computer systems, using a hands-on approach. The course presents many abstractions, algorithms, and data structures learned in CS courses, and makes them concrete by building a complete computer system from the ground up. In particular, we guide the students through a modular series of projects that gradually construct and unit-test a simple hardware platform and a modern software hierarchy, yielding a surprisingly powerful computer system.

The hardware projects are done in a simple hardware description language and a hardware simulator supplied by us. The software projects (assembler, VM, and a compiler for a simple object-based language) can be done in any language, using the API's and test programs supplied by us. We also build a mini-OS. The result is a GameBoy-like computer, simulated on the student's PC. We start the course (and this talk) by demonstrating some video games running on this computer, e.g. Tetris and Pong.

Building a working computer from Nand gates alone is a thrilling intellectual exercise. It demonstrates the supreme power of recursive ascent, and teaches the students that building computer systems is -- more than anything else -- a triumph of human reasoning. We are able to squeeze all this into a single course since we deal with neither efficiency nor advanced features, leaving these subjects to other courses in the program. The resulting approach is completely self-contained, requiring only programming as a pre-requisite. Hence, courses based on the approach can be given at almost any stage in the program.

A book based on the approach was published in 2005 by MIT Press, and courses based on it are taught in several universities including IDC Herzliya, Hebrew University, and Harvard University.

Joint work with Prof. Noam Nisan.

For more details see www.idc.ac.il/tecs

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