I took Grow a Generation to a recent Zumbathon fundraiser for the Yellow Ribbon Girls. Several kids meandered over to the table while the moms were working out. I invited them to play around with the Scratch programming window that was opened on the computer. One girl, I think about 10 or 11, became enamored with Scratch, asking how to make the cat she choose as a sprite move around the screen. I showed her a few command codes and encouraged her to experiment. Intent, she focused as hard on that screen as the 200+ moms focused on their workout. When the workout was over, her mom, exhausted and drenched, came to grab her hand and walk off. It took several attempts by me to convince the mom to actually look, and several more attempts to explain the daughter had not been playing a game, rather programming a new one. She had programmed her cat to dance a Zumba workout. Even then, the mom didn’t seem to understand and finally looked closer to let her child explain the code she had put in place. The mom was incredulous, “You mean my daughter actually programmed this?”
I spent this week working with some brilliant young people as they were introduced to Alice 2, a drag and drop educational programming language that allows students to create computer animations using 3D models. [Alice 2 can be downloaded free to your home computer.] Our theme was Zany Animals and each student was tasked with inventing a creature and animating it with special qualities. J.K. Rowlings inventive imagination supplied fuel for our creativity while we looked at the etymology and origins of some great Harry Potter creatures (Basilisk, Phoenix, Hippogriff, Boggart, and Thestrals). The Discovery channel demonstrated some very real incredible animals and provided a template for our short nature documentaries. We discussed the ethics of animal experimentation and watch some videos of the current status on cloning, using animal to create pharmaceuticals and synthetic proteins, and grafting technology onto animals.
One of the uncles (a young man in his late twenties) stopped mid-week and looked around at the fun we were having. He shared his remembrances of computer science class in high school, a black screen with detailed code he could not make work. He had walked away from high school convinced Programming was something he could not learn.
His comments, alongside the mom’s at the Zumbathon, have me wondering about marketing. Only five students enrolled in the camp. While other factors played a part, how do I advertise to a generation who cannot conceive a child can begin to write code (and have fun doing it)? How can we work to allow not just the technology teacher and the media lab director, but also the classroom teacher encourage computer programming and the creation of digital artifacts in the creative expression of their students.
I have had to journey my own learning curve this summer. I am taking the CS2N Summer of Learning class in RobotC. The Alice 2 tutorials I did in class were adapted from the CS2N Introduction to Alice class that is available free on their website. I learned alongside the kids and eagerly accepted the wonderful help of two area middle school STEM heroes who run their own programming classes in the homeschool network – Fiona and Joseph Chaney.
The camp was such fun. The kids learned to select an environment and create an establishing shot for their animals habitat. They then created their creature by selecting the object of an animal and changing colors, textures, ear size, nose size, arm length, etc. They started animating their animal to demonstrate its incredible abilities and changing camera angles to tell a story. Finally, they added sound and narration to their animation. All of this was done while learning basic computer care, where to save and recover files, and how to deal with constant messaging of “Alice thinks you made an error” and carry on through frustration. The kids will be using the animations they created to enter the CS2N Nature Doc-u-mentary competition.
Two learning leap moments stood out. The first was a child who had originally placed two dragons into the scene and they create a ‘method’ called fight. He dragged the method into the editor box and couldn’t figure out why they weren’t fighting. He had not yet connected the need to write the script for each movement of each dragon to create the method. The rest of his week was spent focused on getting a dragon to flap his wings. It tied in beautifully with a video on the last day about how computer animation team created the Thestral flight scene in the Harry Potter Order of the Phoenix movie. This boy was breaking down the abstract concepts of ‘fight’ and ‘fly’ and beginning to think in terms of modeling, algorithms, and sequence.
Another moment came when a student wanted to have a turtle disappear into his shell. I found a brief tutorial online (the Alice tutorials are out there, but they are not as easy to find as the Scratch tutorials) and he was able to follow it. When I checked back in to examine his code, I was so impressed how he could walk me through the control structures he put in place for sequence, conditions, and parallel execution!
High points included sitting outside on a gorgeous rain free day in the shade under the tree at a picnic table at Baden Academy as students typed away on their netbooks creating their animals, inspired by the new surroundings and summer breeze. Another was the look of such pride as parents and grandparents applauded to see the student creations on the screen in the lab at the end of the week.
Embarrassment of the week – despite a Ph.D., I could not visualize the need to invert the image on the iron on for the shirts – so if you see a smiling child wearing a shirt with a picture of their Zany Animal and all the text is backwards, know that you are looking yet another erratum of Dr. Ellen.
I close with a recent Facebook post from a mom: “John made this video in his computer class this past week. It is short but he has never done anything like this in the past. Wish the class was longer than five days. He loved it.”
Enjoy the kids work – and don’t forget to add your comments!