Cracking the code to success
Scratch program gives special ed student an entree to computational thinking
The glass-walled conference room at The Tech Museum of Innovation is full, the oversized table crowded with teachers. Directly behind them sit even more teachers, their heads craned toward the screen at the end of the room.
Standing in their midst is not another teacher, but Gabby — a nervous seventh-grader sporting a marigold yellow hoodie and a head full of curly brown hair. She is here today to present the Scratch software program she created in her Special Ed (SPED) class at John Muir Middle School.
Scratch was created by the MIT Media Lab in 2003 with the purpose of teaching coding to children. The interface encourages building a chain of instructions with simple, color-coded command blocks, proving that software programming does not require a Ph.D. — it’s just a matter of placing a series of commands in the proper order.
In fact, Scratch’s simplicity and flexibility were what attracted the attention of Gabby’s teacher, Rhodora Sy, who has been teaching for seventeen years in the SPED program at John Muir.
When she received an invitation to The Tech’s two-year Tech Academies Fellowship program that would train educators in using programs like Scratch and Python to promote problem-solving abilities, Sy was immediately hooked.
“I always want to better myself and explore new things for my students,” she says. “I want them to feel successful, but reading and math often seem like drudgery to them. They needed something that would allow them to have fun and learn at the same time.”
Sy’s students took to Scratch immediately, none more so than Gabby, who learned it so quickly that she was soon teaching her fellow students the commands for how to add their own voice recording to their characters.
“If a child can explain [a concept] to another child, that’s learning!” Sy notes. Even more impressive is that, in helping others string together command blocks representing sound, motion, events and variables, Gabby was demonstrating the foundation of computational thinking — the ability to express problems and solutions in a way a computer can execute.
That skill is at the core of California’s newly approved computer science standards which, while not required, are widely understood to be critical for jobs in the future.
For Gabby, though, computational thinking isn’t a standard — it’s just a cool way for her to express herself in a language that makes sense to her. That ability to communicate has brought a new light to Gabby’s eyes, according to Sy.
And on this day where Gabby is standing in front of a whole lot of Tech Academies teachers who are curious to see what she has created, her pride comes through loud and clear.
“It’s important for us to help kids understand how to help the earth,” Gabby says of why she made her Scratch program about recycling. On the screen, a rooster and a chick have a conversation, indicated by dialog balloons that Gabby programmed, about how students should recycle to save the planet.
It’s a quick program and certainly not perfect — sticklers for spelling would find much to mark up. But the teachers in the room understand what this young student, for whom reading and writing are often a daily frustration, has accomplished.
As the teachers applaud, Sy asks Gabby what she likes about programming.
“I feel more confident about other things,” she replies. “I could make stories for kids to understand the future and it gives them something to do at home instead of just being on their phones.”
Seeing how successful Gabby has been learning this new language, Sy has plans to expand it wherever she can. “Children need something they can be good at for them to feel confident,” she says. “If they know they can do this, other areas will start to blossom.”
For more information about The Tech Academies Fellowship program, which trains educators in ten Bay Area districts in mechanical or software engineering, click here.