Tag Archive: Scratch


One of my major concerns with all the current interest in STEM education is that the bulk of the efforts I’ve seen are focused on the Science and Math parts of the topic, with Technology and Engineering taking a back seat to everything else. To me, Technology goes way beyond using computers to create documents, but includes the ability to build one’s own programs from scratch. On the engineering side, my feeling is that kids need more opportunities to invent and build things with their hands – engaging in the kind of tinkering most engineers get to do. There are, of course, many schools that do offer a balanced approach to STEM, and they are to be applauded. But there are many more who do not offer the richness that hands-on construction affords. We have libraries to enrich kids heads. Does your school have workshops where they can enrich their hands and minds together?

The situation is made even worse for many kids who are having trouble in school, since they are often funneled into even more draconian rote-learning environments rather than being given the chance to explore learning in ways that might well be more natural to them.

My bias is home grown. I’ve been an electronics tinkerer since I was a little kid. I used to find old radios that I would take apart for their parts, some of which ended up in projects of my own design. I had no teachers helping me – I just figured things out for myself, with the support of my folks who helped provide me with the tools of construction, some of which I still use today. Of course my tinkering took place decades before personal computers were invented. Programming was replaced by building. And, yes, I made plenty of mistakes and did some stupid things – but, through it all I learned a lot.

By the time I got my PhD and started working at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, I had developed both my hands and my mind. Since (among other things) I have degrees in engineering, both of these domains got a good workout. For example, one design methodology I learned (once the personal computer came into existence) was that there was a decision one made as a designer as to which tasks were better done in software, and which ones were best done with hardware. Since I worked in both fields, this kind of thinking made great sense to me.

But this trip down memory lane has a point – simply that far too many young people would have no idea what I’m talking about. But this can change, almost for free. Furthermore, it can change in ways that are appropriate for young children as well as for adults – all using the same tools.

First, on the programming front, the Scratch language from MIT  is accessible to all and, through its construction-set metaphors, builds good programming habits if students decide to learn more traditional languages later. This free tool can address a lot of the missing materials on the Technology side of STEM.

On the Engineering side of STEM, one amazing and inexpensive tool is the Arduino programmable controller. This open source piece of hardware acts as the interface between the computer and (for example) a robot built by a student with a few parts and recycled materials.

Basically, you create a program for the Arduino that will sense inputs of various types (light, sound, physical pressure, temperature, etc.)and then, based on your program design, run motors, control lamps, and do myriad things limited only by your imagination. While you are free to build your own Arduino system from scratch, most choose to purchase a fully assembled board (shown above) for about $30, or $TB 0.1 (one tenth the cost of a traditional textbook) from vendors like Sparkfun whose catalog also includes all the other electrical components you might need for your projects. Even RadioShack has jumped on the Arduino bandwagon!

As for programming the Arduino, the free software from the Arduino site contains all you need to create programs to be downloaded to your board. But, the language in which these programs are written is not as easy to master as languages like Scratch.

Not to worry – there is a special version of Scratch for the Arduino device (Scratch for Arduino). By connecting your Arduino to the USB port of your computer and creating programs in this version of Scratch, you’ve opened the door for Technology and Engineering education in some pretty powerful ways.

The screen above shows a couple of programs that cause lights to blink in sequence, and to plot the level of light hitting a photocell used to turn the lights off. I could have just as easily created a Scratch program to run an electric car that follows an arbitrary line drawn on the floor – or to have a robot solve a maze – or just about anything else. Now while the Arduino does not have enough power to run most motors directly, motor driver circuits can be built using about a quarter’s worth of parts.

Once kids get started with the Arduino, they suddenly develop an interest in learning to use multimeters, oscilloscopes, and a bunch of other tools (including soldering irons.) They start to view the world of the made through new eyes once they have learned to make things themselves.

So, when it comes to STEM education, I think we should get serious or go home. The tools are there along with amazingly rich libraries of support materials. It is beyond time for us to realize that Science and Math alone do not a STEM curriculum make.

Painting over rust

In 1972, Alan Kay gave a speech at the ACM conference on the design of a computer for children (http://mprove.de/diplom/gui/kay72.html).  This presentation introduced the world to the Dynabook, a concept of Alan’s from the 60’s that he was pursuing at Xerox PARC in the 70’s.

His comment, at the time, is that much that passes for “change” in education (and elsewhere) is simply “painting over rust.”  It looks pretty for a day or two, but then the paint falls off and you are back where you started.  When we look at the world of personal computing since the 1970’s, we’ve seen lots of attempts to force fit failed educational models inside the new tools, giving the illusion of change where none existed.  Like Seymour Papert, Kay was one of the few visionaries who understood from the beginning that the power of computers in kids hands came from the artifacts they created themselves.  This model (Papert calls it “constructionism” says that it is the act of creating something in which a child shows her true learning.  Whether (as Papert suggests) it is a sand castle, a poem, or a computer program, the point is the same – the student is not treated as some vessel to be pumped full of stuff.  Instead, the child’s mind should be triggered to do what comes naturally – to make observations about the world around him, and to create and test models of this world in the quest for understanding.

Which brings us to tablets today.  All across the world, we are seeing huge installations of tablets as the next big thing in education.  While there is much to like about these devices (their true portability, long battery life, etc.) I am still waiting to see the kind of child-appropriate programming environment envisioned by Kay and by Papert (to name two examples) with which children can build and run their own models.  This software exists on netbooks, laptops, and all the other computers we now seem to have put on the back burner and, as a result, we may be (in the short term) making a huge step backwards.  Search for Logo, Squeak or Scratch to see what I mean.  At this point, precious little exists to let kids harness the true power of the tablets they will be getting.

Textbook publishers love tablets.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  This romance is destined to drive tablet use as a distribution medium for the same content that has failed to meet the needs of all learners for generations while creating the illusion of newness.  It is, in fact, just another layer of paint over the rust.

Will this change?  Apple banned Scratch (a logo-ish language for kids developed at MIT) from the iPad.  This was one of the most stupid decisions that company ever made.  In the Android world, I expect Scratch to appear sometime in the next few months (at least that is my hope).  There is a language called Frink that runs on Androids, and while not based on Logo, still allows kids to write their own programs.

As schools race to embrace tablets, let’s stand up and ask: “Are you painting over rust?”  That is a question worth asking.

With the explosive growth of tablet sales around the world, the debate has started regarding access to these devices by young children – from toddlers on up.  Watching the ease with which my four-year-old granddaughter uses both the Android and iPad tablets, this is an interesting question – one that becomes more interesting as we see price points drop to the point where many parents will be getting powerful (and inexpensive) tablets for their kids this holiday season.  Name brand seven-inch tablets have already broken the $200 price barrier, and the prices will continue to drop for lower-end devices.

Make no mistake, though, these cheap tablets are powerful devices – not just for web searching, but as platforms for everything from painting programs to puzzles and (soon) programming languages for kids like MIT’s Scratch.

Arguing about whether kids should have access to these new devices reminds me of the arguments against children watching television that we (or more likely, our parents) followed during the rapid rise of that medium.  Yet the revolution today is far greater in scope than television.  Looking at just SmartPhones, for example, more than 50% of all new phones sold are Android-based devices.  With a subscriber base of 5.3 billion cell phone accounts in the world, the impact of this technology overwhelms that of televisions which are in only 1.6 billion homes (according to the data I’ve been able to find.)

So, if the tablet argument is like the discussions in the past, it is because we recognize how pervasive this new technology has become.  Today’s kids increasingly expect to be able to move things on a screen by swiping their finger across it.  They seem to be coming prewired for the game.

To the issue of suitability, I would make the following argument.  It is not access to the devices that we should be caring about – that will happen anyway.  Our focus should be on the things children do with these tools.  As I’ve said for decades, the hammer used to create Michelangelo’s Pieta is not that different from the one used by the vandal who tried to destroy it.  The tool’s use is the issue – not the tool itself.

One can argue that, unlike television, tablet use is interactive and, therefore, more engaging.  But that begs the question; engagement toward what end?

On this topic, MIT’s Seymour Papert has had plenty to say over the years.  F0r decades, Professor Papert has argued that the real power of computers (and by implication, today’s tablets) becomes unleashed when children use them to build programs of their own design.  He argued that Logo (a language whose development he fostered, and a precursor to Scratch) had “no floor, and no ceiling,” meaning that the novice user could work with the language and continue using it over the years as his/her sophistication increased.  In this sense, Logo was like a natural language in which users increase their sophistication over time.  He even displayed a version of Logo for pre-literate children, reinforcing the idea that age was not a factor.

My recommendation is that we all pay close attention to the goings-on at MIT (http://mitmobilelearning.org/) whose new lab will be home to some amazing projects, many of which will appeal to children of all ages.

New App Inventors

Today I had the joy of helping sixty technology directors and teachers learn more about programming and children using a combination of Scratch and AppInventor.  My biggest delight was that, as we worked through programming challenges, people who found solutions were happy to help those who remained a bit lost.  The result was a day that flew by – much as it does in classrooms where such things are happening with children.  In fact, we operated with the same “rules” we proposed they use with their own students – start with the frame of a program and debug and enhance as desired until you get to a finished product.

This is a very different approach from one that starts with a formal outline of a program, and then proceeds to a highly structured process for the creation of the finished code.  While this approach may be best for large projects involving a team of programmers, it is not (in my view) the best way for people to have the pleasure of creating something from scratch that can be shared with others.

And, the best part (I think) is that their finished programs could be downloaded to their Android tablets to show their friends at dinner tonight.

Now to get this transfered to the classroom…

Those of you who don’t know Gary need to learn more about him.  He is one of the more articulate thinkers about technology and children of our time, and he shares his insights through a variety of means, including his own blog, Stager to Go.  In a recent post (http://stager.tv/blog/?p=2397&cpage=1#comment-56660) Gary says that “BYOD” is the worst idea of the 21st century.  His concerns are many, including the observation that the adoption of student-owned technologies absolves schools of the responsibility to provide powerful computing tools for all children, thus perpetuating the digital divide.  He also correctly states that a cell phone is not a personal computer, and that these tools make it easy to think of education as an information-gathering enterprise, not something that cultivates creativity and thinking.

What he leaves out is the fact that this is rapidly changing.  Powerful tablets running Android 3 provide access to many wonderful activities, and (as I mention below) students will soon be able to create their own programs for these devices using a Logo-like language (Scratch morphed into AppInventor).  Ever since Apple banned the MIT Medialab’s Scratch language from the iPad, Mitch Resnick and his band of followers have redoubled their efforts to bring this powerful language to what is destined to become the dominant platform. (Over a half-million Android devices are set up for the first time every day of the week.)

So, Gary got part of it right, but I respectfully suggest that the situation he describes is not nearly so dire as my response (below) to his blog suggests.

Gary,
As always, you stimulate thought. The fact is that schools don’t WANT one to one computing. As you correctly state, this would be amazingly cheap to do. One to one was fought because it is a real game changer. Now to the point. The reason BYOD is interesting is because it is a consumer-driven revolution – children are bringing their own tools to class with every expectation they will be allowed to use them. Schools are clamoring to set up the right backbone to handle traffic from myriad devices. While you are right to say that a phone is not a computer, that vision is blurring. The rise of powerful, inexpensive tablets will have quite an impact. Maybe you never heard of anyone going into Best Buy to purchase a “device,” but I’ve never heard a kid ask for a new “clicker”. What passes for technology adoption in many schools is a sad attempt to co-opt the revolution.

Like you, I believe children should use their tools as tools for creativity and deep understanding. This is why I’m so actively supporting the Scratch and AppInventor projects at MIT, especially now that they are merging. While you are correct to point out that some devices (like the iPad, for example) do a horrid job of supporting kids creative expression through programming, this is an Apple issue, not a platform problem. Android devices are far more flexible, and the release of Scratch on that platform later this year will bear that out.

If there is a downside to BYOD, it is simply that the establishement of education actively fought student technology until the kids brought it into their own hands. As Papert said, “Unless schools change, the students will create a revolution” The revolution is at hand.