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Coding (and Consulting) Kid-style with Scratch

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Elementary students program in Scratch to develop applications for special needs class

In the past, Karen Randall's classes at schools in St. Paul, MN have performed service projects that consisted of organizing a blood drive, selling toys to raise money for tsunami victims, and creating a brochure for a non-profit neighborhood organization.

This year, her 5th and 6th grade class at Expo Elementary School are lending their consulting and programming services to the students at another school. The programming is being done in Scratch, a language developed and made freely available online by the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at MIT Media Lab.

The idea behind Scratch is to help young people learn mathematical and computational ideas as well as the process of design. A paper about the language, "Learning with Scratch, 21st Century Learning Skills," cites three broad areas in which Scratch can develop skills: information and communication, thinking and problem-solving, and interpersonal and self-direction. Currently, about 45,000 people have registered on the Scratch Web site, which offers the program for download, examples, tutorials, and discussion forums, including one specifically for educators.


The Scratch user interface

The project Randall has instigated paired small teams of students from Expo with individual five- and six-year-olds from Bridge View School--in the same school district--with severe language and movement disabilities. The Expo students performed in-person interviews with the Bridge View students and helpers to learn about their capabilities and interests.

That meeting posed a challenge for some of the Expo students. "It was sort of awkward, because you didn't really know how to interact with them," said Natalie, one of Randall's students. "Then after a while you got more comfortable toward them."

The Expo students received e-mails from the teacher ahead of time about each child and prepared questions to be answered during the initial meeting. They wrote notes during the interview and used the data they gathered to come up with ideas for games that the Bridge View students could play. Next, they wrote out the plans for their programs.

One difference in this programming job was that the students were limited to creating programs that could be directed by special switches, such as those created by Ablenet, on sensor boards, since the users are unable to use a standard keyboard or mouse. As described by Leah, another student in Randall's class, a switch is "a pad with one button. They call them jellybeans. There are big ones, called Big Reds. [The users] click on what they need."

That posed another challenge for Randall's students. "We're finding out it's really hard to do programming when you have one switch that has to do everything," said Randall. "There's only one key because that's the only thing the kid knows how to push.... If you push this button, then this part of the story happens. If you push the button again, another part of the story happens.... We're learning about variables really fast."

For the last phase, wrote Randall in a proposal about the project, "The students will write a 'final reflection,' stating what they learned about programming, design, and interacting with children who have disabilities."

Randall, who isn't a technology-specific teacher, has been having her students use Scratch since its beta launch after learning about it at the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2003. She's also introduced it to her home room class as well.

Programming with Scratch
According to an MIT news release, the name Scratch comes from the technique used by hip-hop disc jockeys, who spin vinyl records to mix music clips together in creative ways. When programming with Scratch, kids can mix together graphics, photos, music, and sounds.

Programming in Scratch consists of dragging and dropping graphical command blocks onto a Scripts work area. The program starts with a single "sprite," a cat character that can be manipulated by the command blocks. For example, to add sound, the student drags a "play sound" block from the Sound menu into the work area and specifies through a drop-down menu which sound to play--a meow or pop or something specially recorded. To change the cat's appearance, the student pulls up the Looks menu and chooses a command such as "Change color...." By plugging the two blocks together, the cat will play a sound and change color.

To stop and start a script, the user clicks a green flag and red stop sign button. He or she can also create sprites or choose sprites from a folder, then modify their appearance, animate them, add music or other sounds, and make them bend, twist, disappear, and reappear. The Scratch Web site includes galleries where kids can post their projects for sharing.

To introduce Scratch early on, Randall had her students create two sprites that said something to each other using the Say command. "I made a creation story about how the world began," said Natalie. Kate, another student, said she created a program in which one tiger ran "and another tiger joined him and they talked to each other."

Now, said Randall, the students with Scratch experience teach those who are new to it. Those who express little interest in it early on tend to become so enamored, they want to learn more about programming--especially the girls. "It's interesting," she said, "that girls are liking to do computer programming, which is something that [some experts] say girls don't like to do."

"My dad works at a computer place, and he programs a lot," said Natalie. "I thought it was dumb. I didn't understand the point of it. But when I learned Scratch, I learned how important it is and how fun it is to do it."

Almost all of Randall's home class works with it at home as well. Likewise, all report that they've gone to the Scratch Web site to see what other kids are doing and to copy command blocks from other programs to use in their own.

Scratch isn't the only development language Randall's students have used. Some have experience with LCSI MicroWorlds, Adobe Flash, Sun Microsystems Java, and Apple Automator.

However, most say they don't necessarily want to be a programmer when they grow up. "Not everything you do as a kid has to involve what you do when you grow up," said Eileen, a student.

Randall's home room class recently went on a multi-day camping trip and then teamed up to develop Scratch programs to illustrate what they saw and learned about at the park. Colin and Howard created a program showing a swan eating lead and dying. Sam and Rawley wrote a program showing a tree being hit by lightening and dying and then rotting and turning into new grass. Kate and Micaela created a project about cattails and their need for water. Malee and Jessica's program shows how animals add fertilizer to the ground. In each example, the overall message is that everything is connected to everything else in the ecosystem.

For another project, the students created tutorials about using Scratch and posted those to the school Web site. "So when we were studying procedures, we chose Scratch procedures to write about," said Randall. "That was writing and reading curriculum."

A Consulting Success
Once the programs for the consulting project were developed, the Expo students returned to Bridge View to share them with their "clients."

Among the projects made for the Bridge View students was one for Isaac, "who really likes movement," said Alec, a student in Randall's class. "If he presses this button, all these cars move. If he presses it again, they stop."

Natalie and her partner created a dress-up game for their client, Atasha, to learn about cause and effect. "When you click on a certain article of clothing, you get to dress a person." The switch is like a teeter-totter tied to two colors--pink and purple. When Atasha chooses the pink end by pressing it against a tinfoil contact, her sprite wears a pink dress.

Kate, Hana and Colleen created a game for Chi, a student who really likes music, that points to the part of a face in order to get music to play. "That helps him learn where his senses are," said Kate. After the music plays, a recorded voice says, "Good job, Chi!"

(To view the public projects developed by Randall's class for the adaptive technology, click here.)

Technical difficulties arose in using the sensor boards until the group realized that it needed to work with a later version of Scratch, said Randall. Once that problem was resolved, the kids struggled to figure out how to get the same switch to start and stop a project.

During the client demonstrations, she said, "My students were great, patient and understanding. Most of the Bridge View students need coaching to push switches and are learning that when they do, something happens on the computer screen. Chi spent most of his turn exploring the computer cables, much to my students' amusement."

One Bridge View student became overwhelmed by all the people and cried when her consultants tried to get her to use the program they'd created. "Not bothered at all, my students waited until she calmed down, then got her jolly again by trading hand fives," said Randall. Another "kept pushing the button over and over, to hear 'Good job, Chi!' in my students' voices."

In the end, said Randall, working with Scratch enabled her team of student consultants and programmers to experience the design process in a deeper way. "They made products that are real pieces of software, adapted to the needs of real clients. Usually what kids make doesn't feel as solid, and the Bridge View teacher pointed out this difference.... What Scratch did allow for was fairly professional-seeming, although simple, software that has a real use for her students--products she can't get from another source."

As Rawley, one student programmer, concluded, "The easy part was imagining what we wanted it to be. The hard part was the designing, programming, catching the bugs, and building the switch."

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About the author: Dian Schaffhauser covers high tech, business and higher education for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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