Friday, June 08, 2007

Scratch – Another Education Tool from MIT

Just to give you an update on my efforts with the Crickets which I blogged about several months ago. My local elementary school agreed to teach it as part of their independent study program. I think it’s a great starting point for those who are too young for the Lego Mindstorms. I made arrangements to have enough kits available to teach a small group of students. We’ll kick it off this fall and see what happens.

In the meantime, I’ve come across another education tool from MIT called Scratch which is similar in programming style to Crickets, but doesn’t require any hardware. It’s for those who want to create animations on the screen and then program the motion, sound, and look of the animation. Just like Crickets, it uses a drag and drop interface which lets the user build up a list of steps (each in a block form) which can create an image (say a picture of a cat) and then put the animation into motion, change its costume, or play a sound. Just as Crickets is a nice precursor to Lego Mindstorms, so Scratch is a nice precursor to Crickets.

I tested Scratch on my seven year old daughter to see what she thought of it. Given her interest in playing video games I think she would appreciate the graphical programming approach of Scratch (she’s not ready for LabVIEW yet). I set up a computer on her desk and loaded up Scratch so it was easily accessible. During a pause in her daily activity I showed her how to drag and drop blocks on the scripting window and then how to run the script by double-clicking on the block. We built a small program that made the animated character – in this case a cat, start walking and then played a drum sound. We then rolled this into a loop which Scratch calls a “forever” block, and started it. It seemed like magic to her.

At that point, she took over the mouse and started to build on the script. She noticed an “effects” button on one of the blocks that gave a new look to the animated character. She turned it into a ”ghost” and then a “fisheye”. At this point she was completely in charge of the program and continued to play with it for another half hour on her own (something of a record for a seven year old I believe).

A few days later she showed the program to her friend who lives across the street. It was great to see her engage in the programming experience. At least until she found she could make twelve copies of the cat and have them all “meow” in unison which made for an ear-grating, whiny noise. I can’t wait for the Fall school season to start.

Best regards,
Hall T.

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