Tag Archives: computer programming

FETC 2017

Code to Learn: Using Scratch to Demonstrate Learning

I’ll be at FETC this week – and will be talking about my hopes and dreams for how to use Scratch. I’ve done a lot of research on coding and creativity and I’m bringing my ideas to FETC (thankfully, my poster was accepted)! I will be discussing the in-depth learning projects I have done with some of my students. I also have a passion for integrating coding into the curriculum and would love to see if other teachers are doing the same (check out my Wright Brothers course).

Creativity in Coding

For the last few years, I have been teaching Scratch during the summer months. Most of the time we do projects related to video games or general learning projects (animations, mazes, etc.). My one-week camps do not leave enough time for in-depth research projects. However, for those returning campers, I am able to challenge them with more advanced Scratch projects. I’ve had students create interactive country projects and create fractured fairy tales. Even though I am not in a K-12 school, I hope teachers will find these ideas (and lesson plans) useful.

After reading articles by Mitch Resnik, Karen Brennan, and Samuel Papert (most well-known for his book, Mindstorms), I felt like they had created Scratch for this very purpose. After a bit, I realized they had. Check out their Scratch foundation.

Regardless, I think our mission is the same – to keep the creativity in coding. To use Scratch (and computers) to create and not just to consume. For the record, I am not affiliated with MIT or Scratch, nor do they endorse this poster session (though, I hope they would if they knew about it)!

If you will be attending FETC this week, I will be talking about my poster session on Wednesday, January 25 from 4:00 – 5:00 PM  – Booth #2500.

UPDATE: To find the Scratch lessons, check out the Scratch Lessons, Challenges & Prompts page.

Create Stories with Scratch

This past summer, I facilitated six classes on MIT’s icon-based programming language, Scratch, and simultaneously helped fifth – ninth graders learn about computer programming. I taught four sessions of “Video Games From Scratch,” and two sessions of “Create From Scratch.” These last two sessions focused on creating conversations and stories with Scratch. I don’t want to be a biased teacher, but these were DEFINITELY my favorite programming classes.

Our class met for eight days; each class was an hour. After a few days of basic concepts (animation, movement), I asked them to create a conversation between sprites. We started with storyboards.

picture of computer with scratch 1.4

Storyboarding

Nothing too complicated – just a simple six-panel, hand-drawn storyboard to tell the events of their conversation. There was a lot of resistance to pre-planning. I asked anyway. Most of them complied (probably because they were locked out of their computers until they finished their storyboard).

Their programmed conversations were allowed to veer, twist and change from their original storyboard. The results were interesting and somewhat mixed, but it prepared them for the deeper challenge of recreating a classic fairy tale in Scratch.

pciture of a projected screen with a scratch project

In the computer lab – sharing projects was an important part of the class.

Recreating classic stories with Scratch

When students returned from the weekend break, I asked them to work on their capstone project: a classic fairy tale. Students were free to retell the story, or add an alternate ending, fracture the tale, etc.

My class was a good mix of boys and girls, but both groups willingly accepted the assignment. Some chose to retell the story with a funny ending. Some made silly graphics which altered the story. Some spent a lot of time creating beautiful graphics, but didn’t change the story arc. There was a lot of choice, creativity and fun.

a picture of humpty dumpty stories with scratch

This “Humpty Dumpty” retelling has a funny ending. Created by one of the students in my class – https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/116815328/

Video Games vs. Stories with Scratch

Why was this my favorite class? Well…I am the mother of two boys. I am married to a man. All of the males in my household love to play video games.

I do not.

I know! I feel terrible just writing that sentence, however, I have come to accept and embrace my biases. I like board games and card games. I enjoy learning about history, cognitive psychology and education. I love art and making art. I cannot live without reading books. I enjoy writing, though, not necessarily fictional stories. I love bringing art and writing together – with technology. That’s why I love Scratch and that’s why I loved this “Create” class more than the popular video game class. Hopefully, it left some of the students with a similar feeling – a way to embrace technology that doesn’t revolve solely around video games.

Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids

I’ve missed blogging. It’s been a busy August and I’ve been occupied with other pursuits, but I am ready to get back to writing. (We’ll see if my schedule agrees with me). In the meantime, I wanted to call attention to my new Udemy class, “Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids.

Udemy Course: Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids

Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids

I created this course hoping that other teachers (and parents) will find a single starting point with regards to children’s “maker education.” So much of being a maker is a willingness to tinker, to explore and to learn on your own.  However, there’s a lot of information out there and it can be overwhelming.

In this course, I focus on three main areas: simple electronics, sewing and coding using MIT’s icon-based programming language, Scratch. Each section starts with a “take-apart” lesson, followed by some hands-on activities, and includes a follow up for teachers to integrate these lessons into the curriculum. There’s even a link to some of the research being done on maker education.

Simple Electronics

A year ago, I took a course from the Tinkering Studio. It satisfied the “missing link” of my maker education. I’ve been teaching computer programming concepts to elementary and middle school students for a few years, but was a little nervous about dismantling and building with electronics. Thankfully, after a year of tinkering – and acquiring a soldering iron – I now feel more comfortable introducing simple electronics to kids.*

At summer camp, my students used the circuit blocks to learn about electricity (and short circuited batteries by accident). They made marker bots and messed around with design principles. “Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids” adds to these projects by introducing a take-apart lesson which is then re-purposed into a sewn LED flashlight. I’ve also included an experiment for conductors and insulators, videos on how to make a simple flashlight, and my favorite way to make circuit art.

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Sewing with Kids

I’ve been sewing for many years; it was one of the first things I had to learn completely on my own. I had to design my own curriculum, find mentors, make mistakes and practice deliberately.  This was my first (unknown) foray into the “maker movement.” These days – with kids, work and homemade dinners – I don’t sew nearly as much as I did fifteen years ago.

Instead, I’ve been sewing with my own children. In a Montessori primary curriculum, we introduce sewing at age three. These activities are broken down into steps (stringing, making a knot, sewing with burlap, etc). As my children grow, we continue to sew, but the projects are more advanced. This past summer, I also taught sewing at our local “college for kids” camp.

I think sewing is a key component of maker education and I’m excited that it’s part of the course, “Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids.” Hand-sewing topics include: taking apart a t-shirt, making a wristband, making a LED flashlight and incorporating sewing into a classroom.

sewing with kids - learning stitches

With an ink pen, I draw out dashes and dots to teach two simple stitches.

Code to Learn with Scratch

Although I’ve been sewing for a number of years, I came to computer programming and robotics through my oldest son. At the age of six, he said he wanted to be a robot engineer. I set out to find hands-on materials that broke down advanced concepts. I stumbled on Lego Education kits and the icon-based programming language, Scratch. I started a business for others kids who were interested in robotics. For the past three years, I have been teaching classes and hosting summer camps.

Along the way, I noticed that many kids came to Scratch because they loved video games. They wanted to make their own – so we did. But we also created stories, conversations and short animations. While creating these programs, the students were learning programming concepts – without even trying.

In my Udemy course, I demonstrate how to use Scratch, but I focus on simple, creative projects that you can do with your students. For upper elementary and middle school students, the sky is the limit. They can create all sorts of games, animations and stories that can reflect their learning. They can use Scratch as a paintbrush to demonstrate their knowledge. Learning can be creative and fun.

I had a lot of fun creating the course and I learned a lot. About everything. Especially movie editing and breaking down concepts. If you are interested in taking the course – “Bring the Maker Mindset to Kids” – use this link for 50% off.

pciture of a projected screen with a scratch project

In the computer lab – sharing projects was an important part of the class.

*With regards to electronics – I still have a lot to learn. My soldering is ugly and I need more practice. As my oldest child takes more of an interest in electronics, we’ll learn this stuff together, but in the meantime, we’re happy to stay at the level of batteries and bulbs.

 

 

 

Review – Code Monkey Island

Have you ever wanted to like something, but just couldn’t bring yourself to do so?

That’s how I feel about the game, Code Monkey Island.

picture of code monkey island

It has a lot going for it – it’s pretty, it has a catchy name and it does a beautiful job explaining how code works. The accompanying “textbook” is just fabulous and is a wonderful resource.

 

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Sadly, the game mechanics are somewhat lacking, and the game instructions are only 2-pages long. There is no description of how to move your monkeys from their start bubble and there are too many similar playing cards.

But the real deal killer?

It’s tedious to play. It’s right up there with Monopoly Jr., Chutes & Ladders and Candyland. All which were played once, and then banished from the house. It’s annoying to play a game that can go on forever, just for the sake of continuing.

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To be fair – Code Monkey Island did last for more than one playing. I had initially purchased it last summer for camp and my campers and I played it one afternoon. Unfortunately, those 8-10-year-olds found it a little too boring for their liking. Maybe that was because we had played (and enjoyed) Robot Turtles and Be the Robot.

However, before I gave up on it completely, I pulled it out last week and my own children and I sat down to play. We set up the game, skimmed the limited instructions and set off to immerse ourselves in the world of boolean logic, variables and monkeys. Sometimes we weren’t sure what to do (like how and when our monkeys could leave their start circle), so we made up some rules. All of that would have been okay, but then my kids started to play the dreaded “remove one of the monkeys from the banana stand” card. This allows a player to take another player’s monkey out of the “home” section. Thus, dragging on the game.

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Of course, you could always remove those cards, but I still think the overall game play is too tedious. My kids likened it to the game, Sorry! That’s a game they somewhat like, but that doesn’t get played as often as Settlers of Cataan or Ticket to Ride. Plus, they said they liked it even less than Sorry!, so it won’t be residing in the game closet.

This game might be better used as a tool to teach programming concepts. Perhaps, it could be made into a Montessori-like ‘work’ that could be placed on a shelf. Students could follow teacher-made cards (taken from the fabulous programming explanations) and create simple scenarios that students could run through. Or, maybe students could use it to write their own “monkey” programs using boolean statements…

Did I mention that it’s pretty?

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Animated Volcano in Scratch

kids' drawing of volcano

Drawn by C, age 7. I’m especially fond of the underground magma.

Scratch animation

It’s fairly obvious that I love Scratch, the icon-based programming language developed by MIT.  It’s a fabulous way for kids to dip their toes into learning about computer programming and computer science principles.

I’ve been using it for almost 4 years and each time I mess around with it, I learn something new. In the beginning, we use it creatively – as it was intended to be used. We start with a few blocks and see what we can make. I do some guided learning, but there’s a lot of choice and a focus on enjoying the language.

Then, we start moving into deeper and deeper concepts – variables, sending messages and conditional statements, etc. But, there still has to be an emphasis on being creative, flexible and offering a somewhat open-ended project.

Animated Volcano in Scratch

Typically, the second lesson I demonstrate deals with animation. We choose a background, change it slightly (the color of the lights, add a disappearing item, etc.) and then apply the following program:

Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 4.26.10 PM

 

 

 

Many of them get the concept, though they don’t truly understand it until they try to make their own animation. It’s at that point that they realize the slight differences are what truly matters in animation.

That usually works for most of my ten-year-old and up students, but I needed a more thorough explanation for my newly minted seven-year-old. He has been begging (for over a year) to work with Scratch and I finally relented in January.

Storyboarding with Scratch

We did the above background animation, but it still wasn’t quite clicking, so I decided to start with a hand-drawn storyboard process. I went with an animated volcano in Scratch. That leaves a lot of personal choice options, but the key concepts remain the same.

I made a simple example and asked the younger kids to sketch out the various stages of a volcano. They were allowed ample time to view (and stop) my volcano program.

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Once the steps were labeled, they set out making a different background (or sprite) with four different scenes – based on what they drew.

C's animated volcano in Scratch

I uploaded C’s volcano animation. Check it out: https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/108661198/

A simple introduction to storyboarding, and a way to keep the ‘creative’ in Scratch, not to mention a quick glimpse into how basic animation works. Creative programming at work!

Brick Chronicles – EV3 Conveyor Belt

The Brick Chronicles feature unique creations made with Lego® bricks. Hopefully you, and the children in your life, will find them as inspiring as I do!

A picture of a Lego Mindstorms conveyor belt

A conveyor belt, made by R, age 10.

EV3 Conveyor Belt

A few weeks ago, my oldest son had some uninterrupted time. No “school work,” plenty of free time and a brother who had a huge stack of Nate the Great books to keep him occupied. He used the EV3 brick to flush out his idea for a moving machine. He also used the ipad app (instead of the computer-based Lego software) to program his contraption.  I came home to a Mindstorms conveyor belt. Of course, I put it on the piano bench, took it outside to capture the fading light and ask him to demonstrate it for the camera. Check out the video:

I’m lucky that I recorded this video. If I had waited a week longer, I wouldn’t have been able to capture it in action. As with most of the Legos® in our house, this EV3 conveyor belt has now been transformed into something else. Just like it should be…no ‘kragle’ here!

 

Is learning to code a bad idea?

A picture of a computer with Scratch on the screen.

Icon-based programming tools, like Scratch, help to make writing code more accessible…and fun.

Last week I read an article that made me worried for the future.  I was afraid for my children’s future, for my own future and for the future of everyone in the United States – which was probably the emotion the author intended to invoke. Will there be enough jobs for everyone? How will the less fortunate children thrive in this new digital economy? What’s that going to mean for the peace of our nation?

Quite a way to start the weekend, no?

After the fear came annoyance and anger. Then, I stopped to consider the evidence provided by the author. There were a few links. I followed them and researched others that he didn’t directly cite (this review suggests another side to the research by the MIT professors). Yes, I don’t doubt that he has some credentials (so do I), but ‘predictor of the future’ does not seem to be one of them.

No one knows what the future can hold. Yes, we can make some assumptions based on past evidence and yes, we should have important conversations about the future (hello, global warming).

According to the 1999/2000 Occupational Outlook Handbook, there was going to be a glut of master-degree librarian jobs available. The need was going to be much bigger than than the current graduates coming out of school. And then the Internet grew and grew (and grew). The housing bubble collapsed and it affected the local tax market and now librarian jobs are hard to come by these days. Why didn’t anyone see that coming?

Frankly, it was an article such as this one that dissuaded me from learning more about front-end web development during my librarian years. Almost everyone was using Dreamweaver and it was said that no one would need to learn how to write HTML because computers will be doing it for you. Well, how wrong were those people? From what I’ve been reading, a lot of professional web developers still manually code their web pages since those software programs inevitably have bugs and problems. Even though I love my WordPress-powered site, I could do more if I had a deeper understanding of the code.

Besides, do we really know what type of jobs are going to be available? In what city? In what town? Certainly, it’s good advice to not take on too much debt while a learning a new trade, but learning something new, even if you don’t use it for more than a few years, is very, very valuable. It will still be valuable if all of the jobs disappear and you have to become an urban homesteader just to survive. At least you’ll be able to build your own automatic, Arduino-powered watering and lighting system. Your vegetable garden will be the most productive one on the block. All thanks to the empowerment you gained from learning a new skill. Even one that you don’t use anymore.

Reading – Trying – Testing – Changing

With Space Camp under my belt, I’m really looking forward to summer camps and classes. Camp registration is up and while I’m still trying to find a place for the Mindstorms Clinic, I’m reading, trying, changing and testing all sorts of kid-friendly projects.

Reading – Trying – Testing

First and foremost is a heavy focus on HTML, CSS and Javascript. This summer, I am teaching beginning web design for Santa Fe’s College for Kids (CFK) .There are so many things that I want to show the kids and there will be a strong emphasis on writing HTML code. It may be plain, but it provides a good foundation for understanding the structure of web pages. While I anticipate mostly beginning students, I may have some who are already HTML-savvy and ready to jump into cascading style sheets (CSS) or Javascript. I want to be prepared for those students, so I have been working my way through this book, while also building and testing my own prototype sites. I love the deep learning that is happening in my brain. I had forgotten how much fun true web development could be.

Ten years ago, I managed part of my library’s web site using (mostly) Dreamweaver. I didn’t go much further with it at the time because I was enamored with teaching, but now that I am really jumping into CSS I am fully engaged and truly enjoying myself. I definitely see some front-end web development classes in Artisan Education’s future.

A picture from the fabulously talented Sally Mavor. This is from her book, Pocketful of Posies.

A snapshot from the talented fiber artist, Sally Mavor. This is from her book, Pocketful of Posies.

Of course, to balance all of that screen time, I usually have some sort of knitting or sewing project close at hand. My inner artist loves being creative with handwork and I like that I can bring my projects to gatherings, as well as to park outings with my kids. When I’m drawing, I need complete quiet (which rarely happens at my house), so I tend to stick with fiber arts. Therefore, I am really excited to be offering the ‘Making in Action‘ camp this June. Plus, I will be teaching the beginning sewing class for CFK in July. Thank goodness there will be a lot of fiber art to go along with all that programming.

For the summer, I am focusing on hand-sewing and the boys are currently testing out my projects.  This way I can tell which ones need more instructions or perhaps, more choice. I recently found an interesting embroidery-pin project that we’re going to work on this week and I can’t wait.

Enough chatting – I’m off to create. I hope you have a ‘making week’ too!

A picture of a half-traced hand-drawn tiny rocket to be used for embroidery

R’s embroidered design choice. He’s testing a backpack pin project.

Book Review – Mindstorms

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

A picture of the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

As relevant today as it was 35 years ago…

Target Audience: Adults (especially teachers, parents)
Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. 2nd ed. Perseus Books: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993.

Mindstorms

It’s taken me awhile to write this review, partly because I have so much to say and yet, I’m not sure how to organize everything I’ve read. Quite frankly, I really need to read the book again, but I had to return it since I borrowed it via interlibrary loan. It was as if I found myself at an amusement park, but only had an hour left before it closed. What would I do and what was the most important thing that I wanted to see? Sometimes, you just need to sit and think about it. That being said, I am going to attempt to provide an overview, but wanted to throw it out there that I could have used a little more time to digest the information.

A picture of the Table of Contents from the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

I do think I understood the overall point of his book, namely that students should be learning with more real-life experiences, thus constructing their own knowledge, and computers can be used to help them reflect their learning. However, he seems to differ in his educational thinking from the Montessori method because he acknowledges that interest plays a big role in how well a student learns. For example, in a primary Montessori classroom, students are encouraged to explore their own interests, but there is a limited prepared environment from which they can explore. Papert seems to advocate for an open-ended, real-life curriculum where a student can explore their own interests in daily life, but still be guided by a facilitator.  I thought it sounded a lot like project-based learning with a little bit of homeschooling thrown in.

But ‘teaching without curriculum’ does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply ‘leaving the child alone.’ It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture.
– p. 32

Throughout the book, he uses his own interests – gears and mathematics – to make the case for creative computer use in schools and learning. In chapter one, he discusses the culture of computers and the hopes (and fears) teachers and educators have for their use in school. He mentions that there is indeed a potential for students to only consume computer programs, to use them to idly fill up their time, but that others will use them to make further explorations. It might allow children to tackle complex subjects at an earlier age because physical barriers, such as handwriting and spelling, will be eliminated by the use of computers.

Though the book was originally published in 1980, this second edition was published in 1993. So, how can a book on ‘computers in schools’ still be relevant more than 20 years later?

A picture of the opening screen of a Scratch project.

A mini-project on the country of Greece. Programmed completely by R, age 9.5.

Sadly, it’s incredibly relevant because computers are still primarily being used to transmit information. It’s top-down learning where a teacher dictates what a student will learn rather than using the computer to help a child to express the concepts that they learned and make their own changes. Papert advocates for using computers to help students see what they are learning, for them to construct their own knowledge based on the programs they are running. While the topic they tested included geometry concepts, he acknowledges that computers could and should be used in other ways.

A picture from the book, Mindstorms. It shows simple line drawings that could be made withthe robot turtle.

A sampling of projects that students could make, and while doing so would learn key math concepts.

He and his colleagues created the LOGO computer language and used it to teach geometry. Since Papert’s background, training and interests are in mathematics, he uses math as a backdrop to explain his theories and his desire to see our thinking made visible. This is especially relevant to me as I am always on the look out for more reality-based ways of using math with my own children. I will admit that he sometimes lost me during his mathspeak (it has been 25 years since I took geometry), but it really isn’t about learning geometry, it’s about learning how to make learning visible so that the students can recognize their mistakes, fix their “bugs” and learn how to learn. He was definitely an advocate of a growth mindset before it became a ubiquitous term.

Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are ‘smart people’ and ‘dumb people’…as a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of ‘dumb people’ or, more often, to a group of people ‘dumb at x.
– p.43

Teaching fifth graders how to program with the simplified text-based language of LOGO was not meant to teach them to be programmers, but rather to help them express their ideas of geometry. Papert wasn’t talking about specific programs (or apps), rather he was discussing learning in general, thinking about thinking, and using computers to express that learning. In fact, he meant for the LOGO turtle to show them where they made mistakes so that they could learn to fix them – in context. No teacher required, thus making the learning more valuable and sticky.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own "bug," by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own “bug,” by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

This book has made it very clear that the creators of the icon-based programming language, Scratch, were following in his work and wanted to honor his vision of constructionist learning.  Having read some of their papers on Scratch and taken the course on Tinkering from the Exploratorium Museum, I was able to understand much more about how and why these tools were developed.

A picture of 3 AAA batteries, alligator clips and a tiny lightbulb.

I made these circuit blocks while taking the Tinkering with STEM course. A great way to help students learn about direct current.

As might be expected from a book on education from a computer scientist, his theories and main ideas are sometimes muddled and he seems to jump from one abstract topic to the next. His work with LOGO was partially based on his work with Jean Piaget in the 1960s and partially from his own work at MIT where he worked on artificial intelligence. His theories are sometimes unclear, I think, because he doesn’t want to have a prescribed curriculum. Also, there’s the question of cognitive, age-based abilities. Was he advocating for preschoolers to use a computer to reflect their learning? I don’t know.

That being said, I really enjoyed being challenged by this book. It made me rethink some of my own teachings and I am now ready to tackle the Making Thinking Visible book that has been sitting on my shelf since last fall.

A picture of the book, Making Thinking Visible.

From the Harvard-based project that tried to help students see (and change) their own learning.