Many Paths, Many Styles, Many Connections
Reflections from the Scratch@MIT Conference
By My Nguyen
At this year’s Scratch@MIT Conference, members of the global Scratch community gathered at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA on August 4–6 to explore and celebrate the many ways that people create, share, and learn with Scratch.
This was my first time attending the Scratch Conference since joining the Scratch Foundation in 2015. I was excited to experience the conference — now in its fifth year — both as a volunteer and as a participant.
In my role as communications specialist, I have the privilege of hearing and telling the stories of Scratchers and Scratch enthusiasts from all around the world for the Foundation blog. I’ve made connections with people from Canada to Ghana, to Buenos Aires and beyond. Because of the vast reach of the Scratch community, nearly all of these conversations have taken place online, over Google Hangouts or Skype. At the Scratch Conference, I was able to make these connections face-to-face.
Connecting virtually with members of the Scratch community is awesome. Connecting with members of the Scratch community in person is awe-inspiring. Their enthusiasm is palpable, energizing, and so contagious.
From the start, community members were eager to participate. This year’s conference sold out in just two months, with the registrant list maxing out at full capacity. It came as no surprise then, the buzzing excitement that saturated the Media Lab over the course of the three-day gathering.
Participants were also eager to share their experiences on social media. Using the #ScratchMIT2016 hashtag, people shared photos, videos, and real-time reactions to keynotes and sessions.
I watched as old friends warmly reunited — many not having seen one another since the last Scratch Conference in Amsterdam — and new bonds formed among MaKey-Makey instruments, cardboard interfaces, spirited discussions, self-organized unconferences, and more.
From “Scratching” underwater with programmable robots, to creating art video games with Scratch to explore social issues, to transforming code into embroidered textile works with Turtlestitch, the Scratch community is taking the core ideas and principles of Scratch and applying them in innovative new ways.
Throughout the conference, I met incredible people who are doing incredible things with Scratch — like Sreya Guha, a sophomore at Castilleja High School in Palo Alto, California, who launched a pilot program in 2013 to teach Scratch programming to fourth and fifth graders at Castro Elementary School. The pilot program was so successful that the school officially implemented programming classes for its fourth and fifth grade students. This past spring, Sreya launched a new buddy-tutor system at Castro to engage underserved elementary students with Scratch.
I also reconnected with people I had spoken to previously — like Arreytambe Tabot, who shared the exciting progress of the Edu Teens Science Development Foundation, an organization that aims to provide universal access to computer science for young people in Africa. Scratch is indeed making its way across Nigeria.
With people from 25 countries in attendance, the tales were as distinct and varied as the people who told them. Yet for all of the differences, and different paths that led us to Scratch, we all gathered at the Scratch Conference to celebrate our common values and our shared dedication to helping young people develop their thinking, their voices, and their identities.
Here are some of my observations from the conference:
“Many Paths, Many Styles” is more than just the conference theme.
As the conference unfolded, it became clear to me, and to others, that “Many Paths, Many Styles,” is more than just the theme for the conference. It is a guiding principle of the Scratch Team’s work — fundamental to how they think about and design the Scratch programming environment. It also informs their approach to supporting interactions in the online community.
In “What’s next for Scratch?,” one of the most-anticipated panels of the conference, Scratch Team members (Kasia Chmielinski, Mitchel Resnick, Natalie Rusk, Andrew Sliwinski) shared goals and plans for the new generation of Scratch, informally called Scratch 3.0. Engineering Lead for the Scratch Team, Andrew Sliwinski talked about designing Scratch 3.0 so that kids can create a wide range of projects based on their interests — from the physical world to sound, to art and animations.
Beyond that, Scratch@MIT provided participants with “many paths and many styles” to experience the conference itself. Between ignite talks, panels, workshops, and poster sessions, (and a special world peace song performance) attendees engaged with the Scratch programming language and online community on multiple levels and in multiple ways.
Scratch is helping young people find and develop their voices.
In the opening keynote the conference, Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab and head of the Scratch Team, invited 16-year-old Taryn Basel, also known as Bubble103 on Scratch, to share the stage with him.
Taryn talked about The Colour Divide, an animated trailer inspired by a role-playing game created by another Scratcher, -ninjagirl-. Taryn’s project embodies whimsical animation, compelling storytelling, and a collaborative spirit. In her conversation with Mitchel, Taryn shared that prior to creating The Colour Divide series, she had never animated before: “But that didn’t matter, because I was inspired!”
With encouragement from the online community, Taryn decided to turn The Colour Divide into an episodic animated series. Although the series initially began as a way for Taryn and other Scratchers to extend the ideas and storylines of the original role-playing game, it quickly became something more meaningful.
A resident of South Africa, Taryn grew up witnessing the lasting scars of apartheid — the institutionalized racial segregation enforced by the National Party in South Africa from 1948–1994. The characters of The Colour Divide represent the different reactions that people had to the social system then, as well as beliefs and prejudices that Taryn still sees today.
“It’s about fighting for something, instead of just against it. Building, instead of breaking something,” Taryn said.
In a separate panel session on Friday, Taryn shared how she was “ultra-shy” before joining the Scratch community. Five years later, she credits Scratch with helping her to find her voice: “I am big. I am brave. I am confident. I am a Scratcher.”
Another Scratcher who found their voice through Scratch is Kartik Chandra, also known as hardmath123.
I first connected with Kartik in 2015, when I had just started at the Foundation. His is the first story that I shared on the blog, and the inaugural post in the “Meet the Scratcher” series.
In the absence of a local Scratch Day in his community, Kartik decided to host one himself. Then a sophomore at Gunn High School, Kartik worked with the school’s computer science department to hold a celebration there in 2014.
When asked what motivated him to host his own Scratch Day, Kartik said, “Scratch was what made me fall in love with computer science; introducing Scratch to more kids seemed like the perfect way to give back to the community.”
Since then, Kartik has hosted two subsequent Scratch Day’s at Gunn High School — and it has become an annual event.
Kartik attended Scratch@MIT as a member of the “Seasoned Scratcher” panel, where veteran Scratchers answered questions and discussed the pathways they took in their pursuit of computer science education.
Though Kartik has always been eloquent, the manner in which he spoke about Scratch during the panel amazed me. Particularly, it was his nuanced understanding of what Scratch is and what it is not — and what it can be.
“Scratch isn’t designed to make computer scientists, it’s designed to make makers and thinkers,” Kartik said.
Expounding on that idea, Kartik added, “You can tell a Scratcher by the way their eyes light up when they learn something.”
Through Scratch, both Taryn and Kartik have certainly developed in their programming; but what I find most intriguing is how they have developed their voices and used the platform to amplify the things they care about and the messages they want to share with the world.
The Scratch Team continues to explore how to design for “all.”
Since President Obama announced Computer Science for All, an initiative to empower all American students to learn computer science and be creators, not just consumers, of technology, in January 2016, there have been numerous questions surrounding how to achieve the “all” in CS for All.
The conference explored these questions in many ways, but most notable were the “Pathways to Participation” keynote with Ricarose Roque, Mimi Ito, and Nichole Pinkard, and the “Creative Computing for All” keynote with Karen Brennan, Meryl Alper, Nicholas Giacobbe, and Rhianon Gutierrez.
During Friday’s keynote, Ricarose Roque moderated a conversation between Mimi Ito and Nichole Pinkard to explore the question: How can we ensure that young people of all backgrounds and all interests have opportunities to learn, grow, and thrive in today’s rapidly-changing digital society?
Nichole Pinkard stressed the importance of “human capital” in terms of peers and mentors: “You need to see projects that are meaningful to you, but also people. You need to see people doing the work who look like you and can inspire you.”
Mimi Ito echoed the sentiment, reminding us that the “self-made coder” is actually supported by a broad network of peers and resources. Too often, society places the burden on schools to provide aspiring programmers with this social capital.
During Saturday’s keynote, ScratchEd’s Karen Brennan, with Meryl Alper, Nicholas Giacobbe, and Rhianon Gutierrez, discussed the role that teachers can play in making creative computing experiences accessible to all learners.
Agreeing with Meryl Alper that there are social, political, and cultural components to defining the “all” in “for All,” Nicholas Giacobbe encouraged the community to consider both formal and informal education as opportunities for creating authentic learning experiences.
Rhianon Gutierrez emphasized the importance of empathy in fostering equity, challenging creators to involve people with disabilities in the design process of their own learning environments.
Meryl impressed the community with a single word: intersectionality. “Let’s think about the different differences that learners represent,” she said.
I admit — I often think about how we can possibly serve and support “all” learners through computer science and programming. Yet for all of the questions that still remain, I am encouraged when I think about Scratch.
The Scratch Team is committed to designing and supporting a platform and online community that engages learners with diverse backgrounds and interests. The goal is to develop a variety of pathways for young people to come to Scratch, which will empower them to create and express ideas in their own voice.
They are exploring these pathways through projects like microworlds — a programming experience with small set of coding blocks for making interactive projects based on a theme (like dance, fashion, comedy, music, and sports). The palette is meant to reduce potential intimidation and confusion for new Scratchers while allowing them to engage in meaningful, interest-based programming.
“We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids — from many different backgrounds, with many different interests — we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.”
In evaluating the success of the Scratch programming language and online community, Mitchel acknowledges that the work is never done:
“We must continue to ask ourselves: ‘Who are we including? Who are we excluding? And how can we provide everyone — everyone — with opportunities for exploring, experimenting, and expressing themselves.’”
Scratch is more than a programming language or online community — it’s a movement.
Sadly, days before Scratch@MIT, Seymour Papert, the educational technology pioneer whose ideas inspired Scratch, died at his home in East Blue Hill, Maine.
Just as Seymour “fell in love with the gears,” so too did Mitchel fall in love with Seymour’s powerful ideas about engaging children in learning through experimentation and play.
During the Thursday keynote, Mitchel reflected on his friend and mentor’s life and legacy — demonstrating the ways that Seymour’s vision of creative, playful learning experiences continues to inform and influence the work of the Scratch Team.
Just as Seymour advocated for constructionism over instructionism, Mitchel applied this thinking to the recent conversations around coding:
“You see a lot of things around coding where it’s learning certain concepts, or solving a certain puzzle. There’s some value to that, but I think Seymour would always argue that the way for people to really engage with ideas in a deep way is to do it while creating a project. In Scratch, the project is the core unit. We want people to create things and share things with others. That comes right out of Seymour’s ideas.”
It is this different approach to coding that sets Scratch and the Scratch community apart from the “learn to code” movement:
“For us, coding is not a set of technical skills but a new type of literacy and personal expression, valuable for everyone, much like learning to write. We see coding as a new way for people to organize, express, and share their ideas.”
In closing, Mitchel challenged the community to try to ensure that Seymour’s ideas and spirit stay alive, noting, “We don’t know what will happen in the future, but we do know creative thinking is key.”
Until the next Scratch Conference, please continue to sharing your many paths and many styles of Scratch by using the #ScratchMIT2016 hashtag and joining the Scratch@MIT 2016 Facebook group.