Monday, January 14, 2008

Computer Programming - who needs it?

Students need to be exposed to computer programming. I have been working with some students as young as grade 1 and 2, playing wiht the program "Scratch" from MIT. Scratch is a free program (free for educational use), and it is a hit with our students. I have been teaching the grade 2's how to do things like use the cat icon (called a sprite) to make a line, make turns, start and stop. This has led to a discussion of angles. We needed to talk about what are angles, and how angles and lines are used to make shapes.

Grade 3's are working on making specific shapes. We are learning through experimentation how squares are different than rectangles. The students in grade 3 can draw rectangles, and most of them can describe how a square is different than a rectangle. But there is a big "Ah-HA!" moment when it comes to programming a cartoon character to draw a square and a rectangle. "Oh...I have to make two sides longer, and two sides shorter.." , or some discovery about how all the corners are the same angle.

The Grade 4's and 5's are making more complex shapes. I asked them how to make flowers, and then put a straight line on them for the stem. They program the sprite to go around and around making a shape reminiscient of the old etch-a-sketch game I played with as a child. But how to make that straight line? Lots of thinking, and for an entire 45 minute period, all the students are on task. All of the students are talking in the computer lab (a practice many frown on), but all of them are talking about their programming. Not one student off task. I wish all my Math lessons were this interesting.

I then show all grades the scratch website at MIT. This is where they can view other students' work. Some of my students have expressed an interest in posting their project there. This confirms my belief that many students want to share their work with an audience.

So what's next? I think we have the primary students work on creating pictures with simple shapes, and we have the intermediates create more work having the sprite move across the screen, and use cartoon speech bubbles to teach others about a favourite school topic. If anyone else has some good ideas on how to use Scratch with elementary students (k-5), I would love to hear them!

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