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Kids Become Coders

By Pamela H. Derringer | August 2007
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Teach programming to encourage technology and media literacy.

Instead of playing sports or texting their buddies, two dozen students at the Jonas Clarke Middle School, in Lexington, Massachusetts, spend Friday afternoons programming animated stories and computer games.

 Computer programming for kids? Sounds like a stretch, but researchers at the MIT Media Lab created Scratch, a Legos-type graphical language that enables kids to plug together blocks to create characters that speak and move.

 “Traditional programming requires a lot of syntax and punctuation, which makes it inaccessible for kids,” says Chris Garrity, a parent volunteer who launched the class last fall and will lead it again next year. Scratch, in contrast, is visual and interactive, says Garrity, who works as a software engineer at MIT.

 Garrity started the kids off with basic examples, such as showing them how to create a character that makes a sound at a mouse click. Next, she introduced other features to a few students at a time, before stepping back and simply observing the students share what they learned with each other.

 One of Garrity’s students created an animation about the immune system for a science project. The cartoon series shows a stick figure that falls down and gets a bloody knee. Dirt gets in the wound, but red and white blood cells come to the rescue and attack the germs, giving the story a happy ending.

 For Nancy Chomitz and Christine Leung, both 12, the class was simply a fun activity. But they enjoyed it enough to sign up for another year next fall.

 “I like the freedom to make what I want,” says Chomitz, whose favorite project was a multicolored ball that spun to music. “I thought it would be hard to make pictures move on the computer, but it turned out to be really easy,” adds Leung.

 Some teachers have incorporated Scratch into their classes using a more formal and structured progression of instruction than Garrity uses in her elective club. Either way, she says, there’s no question the students are actually learning the principles of programming while they drag and drop the blocks together. They learn about loops, conditions, and event-driven programming, all standard concepts, say Garrity.

 The kids treat it like regular programming too. One proud father, who said Scratch would be a great foundation for programming, was corrected by his son. “This is programming, Dad,” he said. @




About the Author

Pamela Derringer is a contributing writer for Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine.

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