Sunday, August 19, 2012

Make it from Scratch - Scratch @ MIT 2012

The kids, over the last year and a half or so, have become prolific "Scratchers," members of a growing online community using MIT's Scratch programming platform. Everett had learned several other programming languages before a recommendation for Scratch had been passed my way. So, when he became interested in what looked to me to be a dumbed down version of much more complicated programming he was already doing, I was a little nervous.

Why was I nervous? I think that person in me with eighteen years of formal education was concerned that he would lose skills he had gained using something so simple. It seemed akin to building things with Duplo when one had been building complicated robots with Lego Technic.

He would quickly show me that I was absolutely wrong.

Not only did he continue to work on projects in C#, JavaScript, and other languages, he figured out to do some pretty powerful stuff using Scratch. He created a game which can be downloaded onto two computers using the Mesh functionality, which allows playing over a network, so it even includes the ability to chat. He's experimented with both physics and math simulations, as well. He was inspired by other users to created his own operating system using Scratch, which he called OllieOS. He even embedded it in his website (although it's still under construction, he tells me).

Not having to worry about semicolons and right parentheses freed him up to really tinker.

In the process of all that tinkering, he came up with a list of things he would improve in Scratch. So, I asked Monika if she knew anyone on the Scratch Team, and she got us hooked up with Karen Brennan. We did an interview on Skype with Karen and another graduate student from Harvard, Mylo. It was less of an interview and more of a one-hour Scratch geek out. Lucy and Everett had so much fun, and ever since then, the Scratch Team has been elevated to celebrity status in my kids' minds (Erick joked that Karen Brennan is Lucy's Justin Bieber). Just a few months later, we had the opportunity to see Karen speak at a Donnell-Kay educational discussion, "What Matters and What Counts in Education" held at the Denver Botanical Gardens.

So, when Karen recommended we attend the Scratch @ MIT 2012 Conference, we immediately knew what we would be doing in July. This conference was designed for educators, but did have a handful of kids in attendance. It was really the perfect conference for someone who is trying to change education, surreptitiously or not. And I say that because all around me were the people in the trenches; I could feel the awkward adolescent nature of this revolution. There were plenty of discouraging things happening, alongside plenty of inspiring ones. There were over 400 attendees from 31 different countries.

Here are quite a few highlights from the conference:
  • Lucy and I attended the "Physical-Digital Chain Reaction: WeDo and Scratch" session, where during the course of three hours, we created a giant Rube Goldberg Machine, which passed a bouncy ball through the physical and virtual space of nine computer stations (computers from all over the world -- our neighbor's computer had entirely Japanese Text). We used the Lego WeDo sensors and motors to interface with Scratch, sensing when we received the bouncy ball from our neighbor on the left, and then passing a ball to our neighbor on the right, after it crossed through the Scratch program on our screens. That's Lucy and I counting to start the machine.

  • Erick and Everett attended the "Diving Deeper With Scratch 2.0" session, which I assume was intended for more advanced users to discuss technical aspects of the upcoming Scratch 2.0 release. Whatever went on in that session got Everett really excited to attend college someday. Apparently he asked a lot of intelligent questions, and then got to share some of his hard work with people who could appreciate it! One of the people attending that session was Mariana Ludmila Cortes, the President of One Laptop Per Child in Mexico. It turns out she is a homeschooler, too!
  • Karen and Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT were the first Keynote session. For those of you who are unaware, the Logo programming language and the idea for Lego Mindstorms were born at MIT, under the direction of Seymour Papert. I wish I had taken notes, but if I had, that probably would make my blog post longer than necessary. :) Suffice it to say, everyone was pretty pumped after Karen and Mitch discussed the history of Scratch and how it has made its way into schools around the world, influencing the development of computational thinking in our next generation.
  • Joanne Barrett of the Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota, FL gave a 5-minute Ignite talk entitled "Getting Computer Science into the Curriculum" -- the most important points being that the focus on learning standards is crowding out time for technical education (a theme we would see repeated many times during the conference). I honestly thought I heard her say that Florida was dumping STEM education in 2013-2014, but I can't find any references to that online, only references to the University of Florida axing its Computer Science Department. On a more practical note, she said that getting students to understand the x/y axis was the hardest part of getting them going in Scratch. Here is a little game that shows the concept pretty well.
  • Barbara Manchee from Pittsford Sutherland High School in Pittsford, NY discussed promoting self-directed learning in her classroom in her presentation "Creative Thinking thorough Game Design and Multimedia." She said that using an ice-breaker activity helped students to loosen up and feel comfortable exploring. She advocated use of video tutorials and Scratch Cards (see links on her web page).
  • Friday started off with a bang -- the Keynote Speakers were Connie Yowell, Director of Education for U.S. Programs, MacArthur Foundation, and Jan Cuny, Program Officer, National Science Foundation. According to Cuny (referencing the Bureau of Labor Statistics), one half of all STEM jobs in the year 2020 will be in IT, and two thirds of the *new* STEM jobs will be in IT. Cuny believes that pretty much every discipline will require a foundation in computing in the future. Currently, only 19% of students take an academic computing class in high school. About 20,000 high school students take the Computer Science AP Exam each year, compared with 240,000 who take the Calculus Exam. Most schools have something called "Computer Science" in their coursework, but in most schools, it is not programming, it is keyboarding or word processing. Most of the funding for STEM classes is targeted at middle and high school grades, but kids have usually chosen a technical field by the time they are in 8th grade, so in that sense, the educational system is missing the ball. Well, that's just the beginning of a very interesting talk which delved into the topic of Badges, as well.
  • A resourceful team of people from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, Margaret Low, Philip How, John Rendall, and Marie Low, gave a great presentation called "Sensing Our World." There was a huge turnout, and only an hour of time, but in that hour, we learned how to use the PicoBoard along with an index card and pencil to make a slider control in Scratch. Other controllers made from household materials are listed on their website. An important concept discussed in this session, as well as in the poster presentations is that touching the real world with programming makes it more enticing to new learners. There is something magical about interfacing with reality; perhaps that is why robotics programs have become so popular, with computer science lagging behind. But, the really profound thing about this group of individuals was the approach they have taken. They have set up a network of volunteers that go into schools in their area, and create these educational opportunities for the students there. Really, they just barge into the school and ask them for a time when they can use the computer lab, educate the teachers about these things, etc. I found it very inspiring -- rather than resting on their laurels, lamenting the fact these skills are being overlooked in the schools, they are providing the opportunities for the kids who may want them in after school programs. It's a lot like what Ken and Liz Rayment are doing in Loveland, CO with their non-profit company, Action-Works, which has brought robotics to all but two schools in our district. It's a testament to the power of community.
  • I didn't get to attend the session on "Getting into the Digital Music Game with Scratch" run by Jesse Heines and Gena Greher from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, but my informant (Dianne O'Grady-Cuniff from Virginia) said it was also spectacular. All of the resources needed are on the website. But the other interesting tidbit Dianne shared with me is that because of the grant money they acquired, Jesse is able to refund educational expenses for any tech educator who brings along a music teacher to their workshops!
  • Saturday morning was a Keynote session I think a lot of people were eagerly awaiting. Several teachers, students, the STEM Coordinator and the Superintendent from Ramapo Central School District in Hillburn, NY presented on their experiences using Scratch in their STEM curriculum. The students shared their projects, including the difficulties and triumphs they encountered while making them, which elicited a lot of delight from the audience. Ramapo's motto is "Educating for Personal Excellence." They had quite the impressive STEM curriculum for their 2nd-4th graders, including multiple units from EiE and NSF for each quarter. Overall, I left this session feeling thankful that kids were getting to experience these sorts of things more than once a week or once a month (as I did in Gifted and Talented special sessions in Elementary School), but still feeling a bit unsettled about it, particularly when one of the teachers displayed her rubric for assessing the students' Scratch projects. I think a lot of Everett's projects wouldn't have been given a very good assessment using the litany of requirements contained on her rubric. For one thing, he very rarely uses sprites he draws himself. But I certainly wouldn't place less value on what he has learned through his experimentation with Scratch because of that.
  • After that, we attended the Show and Tell session, which was a lot of fun. First, user randalpik shared his very detailed cat and mouse game, Basement Showdown. Then Lucy, puppypaws, showed the wolf drawing tutorial she made. User warriorbunny shared a fish simulation she made. Some Japanese middle school students shared hotsoup's project, which models natural human movement. Japanese users masaishi and kyrie0513 wanted to share a mesh game they had made, but for some reason, the network in the Events Space wasn't supporting mesh at the time. Everett, who is knector, shared a game he had made called Fruit Scratch, which worked with his web cam. (You can't see it on the website, because it is only on Scratch 2.0, which hasn't been made public yet). He ended up showing it because the first project he made vanished into the ether due to a bug when he saved it, and the second one used mesh (we figured out watching the Japanese folks struggle unsuccessfully to get their mesh project working, that he needed to think quick and show something else).
  • And, it turned out that the mesh not working enabled us to connect a bit with Junya Ishihara who helped start the first Coder Dojo in Tokyo
That was really all just the tip of the iceberg, but we sure did have a lot of fun! The atmosphere at the Digital Media Lab was so hopeful. Sure, there was a certain amount of frustration, but I think, for the most part, there was a shared feeling that we're on to something really promising, and I've never seen such a gathering of people so dedicated to changing the future. I wish I could bottle that inspiration and share it with everyone I know.

Mylo made a video of his impressions of the Scratcher Space, the area where the Scratchers tinkered which was played during the Closing Keynote, and you can see it here. You might see someone familiar, and his creation in Scratch 2.0, around the middle of the video, if you pay attention.

Well, those were my impressions at the conference, but you can delve in deeper:

Mitch and Karen shared their impressions on the MIT Media Lab Blog.

The Conference Twitter feedFlickr photostream and Storify.

Matt Arnold's Storify and blog.

Kim Wilkens' blog.