Scratch: Computer Programming for 21st Century Learners

By Lamb, Annette; Johnson, Larry | Teacher Librarian, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Scratch: Computer Programming for 21st Century Learners


Lamb, Annette, Johnson, Larry, Teacher Librarian


From designing video games to producing animated movies, an increasing number of young people envision themselves in technology-related careers.

Unfortunately, many students have only experienced the user side of new media and may not be aware of the computer programming that goes into the creation of these products.

When microcomputers first became popular, many students learned BASIC, Pascal, or other easy-to-learn programming languages. In the 1980s, schools taught a simple language called Logo to provide a foundation in programming. Children used simple instructions such as FD50 RT90 to move a tiny turtle around the screen.

In his classic text Mindstorms (1993), Seymour Papert stressed that programming encourages discovery learning and problem solving. Children are doers and thinkers that construct knowledge based on active engagement in learning experiences.

Today, computer classes often use web development tools, learning interactives, and social media websites allowing few opportunities to apply the problem-solving and deep thinking skills required in a higher-level programming environment. Enter Scratch, an educational programming language that allows students to explore a wide range of programming skills.

WHAT IS SCRATCH?

Developed at the MIT Media Lab, Scratch allows learners to experiment by snapping together visual coding blocks to control pictures, sounds, and other elements. Scratch is freely distributed for Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux. The word "scratch" was originally used in musical remixing done by DJs with a turntable in hip-hop music. In the computer software, scratching refers to reusable pieces of code that can easily be combined, shared, and adapted. Students can create stories, games, art, music, animations, and much more.

The software is designed to be intuitive and easily learned by developers of all ages without programming experience. Users create projects using downloaded software, then upload their projects to the Scratch web site for sharing. For instance, the Women Astronauts project, scratch.mit.edu/projects/eduseapes/907918, celebrates Women's History Month and highlights the book Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone (2009). See Figure 1.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

HOW DOES SCRATCH WORK?

After downloading and installing the free software from the Scratch web site, scratch.mit.edu, users drag chunks of code from the blocks palette into the script area. These pieces of code are combined to create actions for objects called sprites. The results can be seen on a stage.

For instance, a student might create a conversation between two characters. See Figure 2 for a dialogue set in the Middle Ages, scratch.mit.edu/projects/eduscapes/900587.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The Scratch project Wordcloud, scratch. mit.edu/projects/chalkmarrow/660750, works like the popular Wordle.net web site. Projects like this can be used to show young people how they can create projects like they see on the Internet.

HOW IS SCRATCH USED ACROSS THE CURRICULUM?:

Rather than simply being an exercise in programming, Scratch is intended to be a practical tool allowing students to create meaningful personal as well as educational projects. To understand the broad spectrum of applications, it's useful to explore the online community associated with Scratch.

The Scratch Gallery, scratch.mit.edu/ galleries, provides access to thousands of projects. The Scratch web site works best with the newer web browsers such as Safari and Chrome.

The Design Studio, scratch.mit.edu/galleries/browse/clubbed, provides projects that are helpful in learning and creating, while the Featured Section, scratch.mit. edu/galleries/browse/feature, highlights projects identified by the Scratch developers as particularly interesting.

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

Art

Users of Callig, scratch.

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