Scratching the Programming Itch

Friday and Saturday I was at MIT (specifically the famous Media Lab) learning about a programming platform/language for young people. The language is called Scratch and I may have blogged about it before. This weekend was the first time I really got into it in any depth though. Scratch is a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Research Group. Now is that an interesting project name or what? This is the same group, lead by Mitchel Resnick, who developed the programmable brick that is at the heart of the Lego Mindstorms system. They know about mixing education and fun. I think they really have a great idea about learning though design and doing things rather than sitting passively while someone talks in the front of the room.

Attending the workshop were about a dozen teachers and instructors from schools and after school programs around the US. Microsoft sponsored several of the teacher's travel expenses to the workshop and I was invited along to learn as well. I have to say that I really liked meeting and learning with these educators. These are all people who were willing to give up their time (including a Saturday) and travel across thousands of miles and several timezones to learn about a tool that might be a new way to teach.

The Scratch training team which included Mitch Resnick, his staff and graduate students, were great hosts and great teachers. They had us all developing projects that used the letters that make up our names initially. This turns out to be an interesting way to experiment with the graphic tools, sound tools and of course the programming structures. Several of the teachers in the workshop had very limited programming backgrounds but were still able to easily create interesting projects. I've taught a lot of teacher workshops over the last several years and I have never seen teachers be able to do projects as complicated as these in this short of time. That alone is impressive.

The people in the workshop will be working with high school or middle school students (figure ages 11 through 18) when they return home. I am hoping to hear more about how this software works with their students. I'm also interested in seeing what sort of projects their students develop. Young people have less fear and more creativity than most adults.

Scratch is one of a number of new tools for teaching programming concepts to young people in fun and interesting ways. Even better than that is the potential to use these tools for learning other subjects. Using computers to learn other things rather than just for teaching about computers seems to me the best way to make use of computer technology in the classroom.

[Cross posted from my high school computer science blog]

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