Monday, November 17, 2014

Computer Science Day 12 - The Moment We've Been Waiting For...

Today was a HUGE day.

So far, students have been learning computer programming through code.org's excellent course materials. They've learned how to create algorithms to complete various tasks, they used loops to write cleaner, more efficient code, and they've learned conditional statements to make interactive, "smarter" programs. However, all of their experience up to this point has been in completing pre-defined tasks that code.org has created.

Today, the students themselves were able to create.

from http://gotomarketguy.com/genba-magic-happens/
This summer, I was able to work as a Mobile App Developer for a company called FX Palo Alto Laboratories. I was placed through via this amazing organization called IISME (Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education). Basically, you apply through IISME, who partners with a ton of various companies in the Bay Area (and other markets as well) to place teachers in summer fellowships. It was an incredible experience, and one that I whole-heartedly recommend to every teacher who has a free summer.

IISME also funds a grant called the Fund for Innovation. I applied this fall and was selected to receive a grant to purchase pedometers for a separate sixth grade PBL project (I may blog about that and other PBL-related adventures somewhere else) and Makey Makey kits.

If you haven't heard of a Makey Makey, go to their website now and watch their videos. You simply have to check this thing out. If you're at all interested in computer science or electronics, do it. Do it now.

I'd heard of the Makey Makey, and had bought one for myself, but it wasn't until I saw on Twitter that Makey Makeys were being used to control Scratch projects. I immediately thought of the possibilities for students to get creative, making a program in Scratch and then creating some hugely imaginative interaction system that would captivate users. The Fund For Innovation grant made this possible - I was able to purchase 16 kits, meaning students in classes could pair up and program something cool.

Well, it was like Christmas morning last week: the kits arrived.

I had planned on teaching code.org's The Big Event lesson to teach students about event handlers. I scrapped that - instead, I quickly showed students how to grab event listener blocks in Scratch for various key presses, just enough to get by, then spent time with the Makey Makeys.

First up: we needed to create Scratch accounts. Every student got a laptop, went to scratch.mit.edu, and created their user account (using their teacher's e-mail address for parent/guardian e-mail). Then, half the class signed out again and returned their laptop. The rest of the class simply closed their laptop screens and followed along with me at the front.

I started with the board on its own first, without showing them any videos. This allowed me to keep their attention as we briefly discussed electronics. We looked at the board, its labels, etc. I explained to students how it basically works - when plugged into a computer, the Makey Makey appears as a keyboard. Then, as you close circuits attached to various parts of the board, the computer just thinks a particular key was pressed. I drew a simple circuit diagram on the board and talked about electron flow and current (confession: I'm really not strong with electronics, so I kept it vague so as not to mislead students). This was all just a way of communicating to students that in order for current to flow, the circuit must be closed. I drew an example of what that might look like and emphasized to the class that if I want to make an interactive banana, I must hook myself up to ground, the banana up to "space bar", and then touch the banana.

We discussed a few possibilities, then I showed them the video. As with everyone who has seen the demo video, the kids were floored. It looked like magic!
At this point, many kids were DYING to get a kit and begin. So I let them! This was mainly an exploration day, an opportunity for them to get acquainted both with Scratch and with the Makey Makey. Kids ran into all kinds of obstacles, the most common of which was not closing the circuit properly (I don't know how many kids connected an alligator clip to a pencil drawing only and then complained that it wasn't doing anything when they touched it; they hadn't hooked themselves up to ground!)

All in all, though, kids were free to start coming up with different ways of interacting with Scratch programs. One pair created interactive hair; several groups drew game pads using pencils and paper that controlled the Scratch Cat; many groups high-fived each other to a variety of sounds; one pair made paper clip drums.

This was all over the course of 25 minutes to 45 minutes. Not a lot of time, since this was our first intro experience, but it was enough for students to figure out how to make stuff happen in Scratch and test out a variety of materials to see if they could get their Makey Makey working.

I am SO excited now to see what students come up with! I've already heard of one pair of students planning on making an interactive map of the world to play a geography quiz game!

At this point, we're pretty much done with code.org. I've opened up the site to students to work on at home (they could do that all along, but I told them not to when we first started) so that they can continue practicing on their own. At this point, though, we're going to make a switch over to Scratch's Creative Computing curriculum. We'll explore how Scratch works and practice a variety of skills, then begin working on students' own projects when we come back from Christmas break.

I really can't remember a time when students were so excited, engaged, and productive; and I'm really looking forward to doing this same lesson in four more classes to see what else they can come up with!

Next up: Scratch Surprise and sharing/gathering feedback using Scratch Studios!
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