Since the computer program Scratch became public in 2007, a worldwide network of over 5 million registered Scratchers — primarily elementary and middle school students — has grown together online. They share stories, homework, games, polls, tutorials, artwork and a seemingly endless collection of computer-generated creativity. And they speak in code. Literally.
“Kids are learning to code. But more importantly, they are coding to learn,” said Mitch Resnick in a recent TED Talk presentation, “Let’s Teach Kids to Code.” Resnick is Director of the MIT Media Lab Lifelong Kindergarten Group. He created the Scratch program in 2003 as a learning tool to introduce computer programming in a simple and entertaining way.
Kids in Control
For educators, the free program is a valuable learning tool. “I often introduce Scratch by telling students that, for the first time, you get to tell the computer what to do instead of it telling you,” said Marie Hopkinson, a sixth grade math and social studies teacher at Mill Pond School in Westborough.
After attending a Scratch Conference at MIT in 2008, she introduced the program in her classrooms, learning quickly how interested students were to create computer code. She encouraged her students to use Scratch as an alternative to PowerPoint when completing class projects.
Unlike the mounds of complicated type that many associate with code, colorful tile blocks introduce code to beginning Scratchers. By arranging the tiles, each with instructional code, users are able to write interactive stories, animations and games. These projects can then be shared within the Scratch online community so that other Scratchers are able to look at the project and its coding, often adding changes. This process helps students to become fluent in the coding language, an essential life skill in this digital age. To date, more than 8 million projects have been shared on the Scratch website.
“Young people today have lots of experience and lots of familiarity with interacting with new technologies, but a lot less so of creating with new technologies and expressing themselves with new technologies. It’s almost as if they can read but not write with new technologies,” Resnick noted. “But I’m really interested in seeing how can we help young people to become fluent so they can write with new technologies. And that really means that they need to be able to write their own computer programs or code.”
One of Hopkinson’s first Scratch students was Luke Sciarappa, now a senior at Westborough High School. Luke serves as a mentor to middle school Scratch Club students.
“[Scratch is] intended to be a programming language that's easy to understand (low floor), has diverse possibilities for projects (wide walls), and can still do more advanced things when users are ready to attempt them (high ceiling),” he said. “Kids can just start by joining a few blocks together and seeing what they do and progress to a stage where they think, ‘OK, I want to see this behavior, what blocks should I assemble to do that?’ And that's basically what programming is.”
Scratch Spreads Worldwide
After it was introduced to the public, Scratch quickly gained popularity among students and educators. In addition to Scratch Clubs forming in classrooms around the world, the annual Scratch Day conference at MIT attracted a growing crowd.
Doctorate student Ricarose Roque recalled joining the MIT Scratch Team in 2010 as it was preparing its second annual Scratch conference. “People came from all over the world to share stories about Scratch in their communities, resources they've used, and extensions to Scratch they've built,” she said. “They were so excited to connect, share, and learn more about Scratch. That experience made me see that Scratch was only going to continue to grow and spread around the world.”
Students Learn From Each Other
Looking back at his years working with the Scratch program, Sciarappa thinks that grades four through six are prime years for introducing the program: “[They] could derive value from it, even if they might not start really ‘programming’ with it for a few years.”
“I've learned that kids have a great desire to create, to express themselves, and to explore their interests — and Scratch makes it easy for them to do just that. This desire can motivate them to learn computer programming and to persist through challenges,” said Roque, who works with the online community. “They can connect with others who have similar interests and learn from one another, too. It's been great to see the ways that Scratchers collaborate on projects, give each other feedback, and build on top of each other's ideas.”
“I am always surprised how students persevere when creating a project,” Westborough teacher Hopkinson said. “They often begin thinking they can easily make a multi-level maze game. They soon realize that this requires a complicated script, but they don’t let this stop them. I have seen students work on projects for a total of 10 hours or more before they get it ‘just right.’ This type of resolve is not often demonstrated in 11 year olds.”
The Coding Community Grows
For families interested in learning more, scratch.mit.edu is where the free program, online community, and a library of student-created projects are hosted.
“There is also a community for educators interested in Scratch called ScratchEd, where they can meet other educators, share stories, and explore resources,” Roque said.
There are additional opportunities both online and in-person to learn more about Scratch. “Various organizations that have multiple sites support Scratch, such as CoderDojo, CodeClub, and iD Tech Camps,” Roque said. “You may find a local branch of those organizations hosting camps or workshops. Currently, EdX (an online course platform) and Harvey Mudd College are hosting a free online course on Scratch.”
On May 9, the public is invited to Scratch Day at MIT. “We celebrate Scratch Day all over the world,” she said. “Anyone can host a Scratch Day and they can post their event on the Scratch Day website, which also has more details about the Scratch Day network.”
Love of the Language
“I would not be afraid if your child wants to spend a lot of time in Scratch. I once had a student beg me to assign him Scratch homework so his mom would let him have time on the computer,” Hopkinson said. “I have never had a math student beg me for homework.”
“When someone uses Scratch, I want them to see themselves as creators and inventors and see that they can create almost anything they imagine,” Roque added. “In a rapidly changing society, the abilities to adapt and to think creatively are important capacities for all young people to shape the world around them.”
Mitch Resnick’s TED Talk presentation, “Let’s Teach Kids to Code”
EdX Scratch course
Harvey Mudd College Scratch course
Scratch Day 2015