ScratchEd Meetup, Saturday June 18, 2011

The ScratchEd Meetup at MIT this Saturday was the final get together of the year. Across the Charles, Boston was packed with Bruins fans. Helicopters circled the Rolling Rally as a dozen of us shared our interest in programming with the ScratchEd team. We almost didn’t notice it was beautiful outside the windows. It did help that Building E-14, the Media Lab at MIT, is air conditioned letting us avoid the 80+ degrees outside.

The ScratchEd team, lead by Karen Brennan, got us to know one another, gave patient advice to keep us from stalling in our projects and sought our advice about the team’s plans for the coming year.

Scratch is developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab.

If you have an interest in programming and encouraging programming in the middle elementary to high school grades, Scratch is worth learning. Scratch is very accessible. It works on Macintosh, Windows and Linux. Everybody can get into the act. It is free software. You may download it to all the computers in your school, your students’ computers, your town library and community center. It is a visual tool. Scratch puts useful elements of a program into sensible categories and it is easy to gradually build complicated behaviors. Generally, a program shows the results on screen, often by moving images (called sprites) around in a “Stage” shown on your computer’s screen.

The focus of Saturday’s activities was physical computing. It was not just a speaker’s presentation and a bunch of talk. This Meetup let us have some fun, playing with sensors, Lego blocks and such. The ScratchEd team modeled good processes for us. Everybody was involved.

We were extra lucky. Some meetups this year were so well attended that they didn’t get the 1 to 1 attention we had. We had the chance to build sensor setups with the Pico Board and Lego WeDo sets. Everybody got their hands into the pieces and explored the real world with the easy USB connection to the computer. Scratch revealed measurements of light, tilt, and proximity. And with the WeDo motor, it was even possible to build a “Can’t Catch Me” car. Trying to sneak up behind the car set it rolling away, moving ahead of the stealty pursuit from a sneaking sneaker. We wrote a short Scratch program which instructed the WeDo sensor to activate the motor if anything came too close.


I strongly recommend you go to the Scratch website. Explore the work that has been submitted, mostly by kids from all over, kids with great ideas, kids who share their work to an international audience. After you have explored a bit, get your copy of Scratch, an easy download and install. Start playing. That’s right. Scratch is playful programming. Yes, it is possible to do programs which calculate sums, do multiplications, square roots and other “problems” typical in programming courses. However, Scratch encourages visual engagement which quickly allows/encourages students to make interactive stories and games.

In schools, computers have become tools, tools which too often focus on the “productivity” part that technology can provide. Children write more efficiently, learn to edit their documents and produce spell-checked, font-enhanced projects. Some even get to do mashup presentations and the ever popular spreadsheet. Computers help kids connect with more information than we could have dreamed of not too long ago. But efficient, productive use of computers is, too often, just no big deal.

How many of us really love the other tools of education, a pen, a pencil, a black or white board?

Do your students often tell you how much they love using the computers in the classroom?

Is something missing in the concept of productivity though technology?

Scratch provides what kids want from a computer, an engaging chance to take control of a computer and, most importantly, to have fun. You know, fun, that thing everyone is looking forward to when they start kindergarten or first grade. Scratch can reinvigorate that fun for kids and their teachers.

If you can’t get Scratch into your school’s core curriculum, add it to the after school program; get it into Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; gather your kids and the neighbors in the playroom. You’ll all have fun. You should not be surprised that you’ll also learn something.

Finally, become part of the ScratchEd group. You’ll get to access tutorials, training materials like the popular Scratch Cards, and an enthusiastic group of users who will share their successes with you, and encourage your success, too.