Learning How to Program at Seattle CoderDojo

Meilee during her first Seattle CoderDojo class. Sept. 20, 2014

Meilee began learning how to use Scratch a year ago in July (read the original post). Her first published project was called The Unicorn Ghost and its premise was rudimentary: click on the button to make the unicorn move. She played around a little and started projects, but didn’t progress beyond one-trick ponies, so to speak. Recently, I saw an in article in Geewire.com about CoderDojo, a free weekly programming club for kids ages 8-18 that was founded in Seattle but now has local clubs across the country. And the Seattle CoderDojo club meets on the Amazon campus – which is across the street from my office. After we checked in at security, the kids were each given a souvenir CoderDojo badge, which was a great touch that made them feel official.

Seattle CoderDojo badge
Seattle CoderDojo badge.

The kids who attend are divided up according to programming interest: Scratch, HTML/JavaScript, PHP, C# and Java. We found our way to the Scratch room and settled in, Meilee with my laptop and Shen with the iPad to keep him entertained. While Shen isn’t ready for Scratch, I wanted him to tag along so that he gets exposure to the club. The first 15 minutes or so of the session is spent listening to the lead mentor describe some basics of how to get started on the day’s assignment. CoderDojo has a set of projects that will help kids learn basic commands in Scratch. After the introduction, each participant can work at his/her own pace and seek help as needed from one of the volunteer mentors.

A Seattle CoderDojo mentor helps Meilee with a series of commands.
A Seattle CoderDojo mentor helps Meilee with a series of commands.

Meilee’s first challenge was to use repeat loops to draw patterns with an arrow. Doing so required some thought as to what commands to use and some basic geometry. While the math was beyond Meilee’s experience, she was lucky that one of the volunteers happened to be a math teacher.

A Seattle CoderDojo volunteer who happened to be a math teacher helped Meilee with some geometry.
A Seattle CoderDojo volunteer who happened to be a math teacher helped Meilee with some geometry.

What appeals to me about CoderDojo is that it provides a place to go where Meilee can be around other kids who are interested in Scratch and where she can get expert help from mentors. Best of all, the club is FREE (the magic word for DIY Tiger Mom) to attend. During a quick break, I ran into a woman in the restroom who said that the CoderDojo in New York had a waiting list of 500 kids. (500!) Luckily, that isn’t the case in Seattle. I had to ask my husband to take Meilee to the second session, because I had another appointment. Later in the day, she asked if she could show me what she learned at CoderDojo. It was so thrilling to hear her describe her thought process. As I mentioned in the post I wrote last year, I don’t necessarily want Meilee to become a software engineer. I just want her to learn how to analyze a challenge – regardless of what it is – and engineer a solution. I think she’s on her way.

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Phytoplankton Soup!

It’s the last week before the school year starts and we squeezed in one last summer field trip to Friday Harbor, where some of the scientists I work with at Institute for Systems Biology have been conducting research related to ocean acidification. The Friday Harbor Labs belong to the University of Washington, but other researchers can rent the facilities, too.

Getting to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island required a significant amount of patience from the kids: 2 hours to Anacortes, a short wait for the ferry, 1 hour on the ferry.

Ferry to Friday Harbor
Ferry to Friday Harbor

But once we arrived, there was plenty to see at the labs.

UW's Friday Harbor Labs
UW’s Friday Harbor Labs

The kids got to peer into the microscope to see various phytoplankton, which are responsible for photosynthesis and play a key role in the food web in seawater and freshwater. There are hundreds of types of phytoplankton, but the the sample the kids got to see primarily contained Thalassiosira, Coscinodiscus, Chaetoceros, and Ditylum, as well as zooplankton and larvae (e.g. sea urchin, jelly fish). These organisms live in the waters just off the pier at the Friday Harbor Labs.

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There is a small pool in the lobby of the main lab building, where visitors can see some of the creatures that live in the waters.

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In the afternoon, the researchers (Monica Orellana, Allison Lee and Jake Valenzuela) took a row boat into the bay to collect water samples. Allison is using a mesh phytoplankton net that concentrates the organisms in a cup-like container.

Sampling

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Phytoplankton net

The reason the scientists were collecting samples was to be able to study how these organisms respond to different pH levels.

Ocean Acidification Experiments

It wasn’t all fun for the kids. Because I did have to do a little work, there were a few moments of down time when the kids got bored.

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I’m fortunate that I was able to bring the kids along on this trip. I don’t know what their minds retained from that day, but they can say that they went to the labs and looked into a microscope. Sometimes, that’s all that it takes to inspire a kid.

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Engineering a Marble Run

Shen's Marble Run

For Christmas, Shen asked Santa for marbles. I’m not sure where he got that idea. He’d never spoke about marbles before and when it was his turn to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what he wished for Christmas, he said, “Marbles.” Perhaps, in the moment, Shen simply said the first thing that came to mind and forgot to say what he’d actually been talking about: Hot Wheels cars and a train set.

I found a marble run set online from Quercetti and gave that to Shen “from Santa.” It’s a low-tech toy that can scale up or down in complexity according to how many pieces you have. You can buy additional segments or sets that have motorized elevators and such. We started with the basic 45-piece set, which costs about $20. It’s still a little too challenging for Shen to set up, so I have had to help him. But he thoroughly enjoys watching the marbles wend their way through the maze of tracks. I asked him what he likes about the marble set and he replied, “I like playing with you.” (Awww.)

Quercetti Marble Run

Shen asks many questions about how things work, so I think the marble run can help him develop those engineering skills. He did construct a tall run that worked – even if it wasn’t perfectly stable. But matching the pieces to one of the design examples on the box takes a little help. The other day, we built one of the example structures and then Shen asked me to shoot a movie of him demonstrating how it works. I shot it in 3D using the Poppy (read about Poppy), but the lighting and resolution of the video aren’t great, so it’s a bit fuzzy (sorry). But I love that my usually shy Shen thought about what he wanted to say — we did three takes and he started the same each time: “Hi. I made a marble set with my mama and I can show you something really cool.” At the end, he says, “Done. Goodbye.”

NYT’s Science Education Special Section

In case you missed it…

It’s worth checking out the Sept. 3 special section on science education in The New York Times. Of note, the report on the Institute of Education Sciences, which is:

“…a little-known office in the Education Department (that) is starting to get some real data, using a method that has transformed medicine: the randomized clinical trial, in which groups of subjects are randomly assigned to get either an experimental therapy, the standard therapy, a placebo or nothing.

“The findings could be transformative, researchers say. For example, one conclusion from the new research is that the choice of instructional materials — textbooks, curriculum guides, homework, quizzes — can affect achievement as profoundly as teachers themselves; a poor choice of materials is at least as bad as a terrible teacher, and a good choice can help offset a bad teacher’s deficiencies.” Read the full story here.

There’s also a story about a new version of Scratch, the programming language for kids that was created by the MIT Media Lab, that will be geared toward the younger set. Scratch Jr. is being tested in kindergartens and is expected to be available to the public sometime in 2014. Read that story here.

I also enjoyed reading comments from various leaders in tech, science and education on their thoughts about the state of education. Check out the section online: http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2013/09/02/science/index.html

Engineering Crazy Straws

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When I was a kid, a “crazy straw” had a figure-eight loop and that was fun enough. Now, there’s the NuOp Design Strawz – kits that allow you to engineer your own crazy straw. You can find them online or at specialty stores. I found Strawz at my neighborhood grocery store on clearance for $6.50 per set (the original price was $10.95). What comes in the box are 44 pieces of long and short straws and connectors.

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It was a no-brainer purchase – especially at a clearance price – for an easy engineering lesson veiled as fun. I purposely use the term “engineer” instead of “make” or “create” so that the kids continue to hear the word associated with the concept of designing and building solutions. To spur a little friendly competition, I told the kids that whoever had the best-designed straw would win a treat. It wasn’t necessarily a fair playing field since Shen’s fine motor skills aren’t as developed as Meilee’s. He started to pout (below) when Meilee finished constructing her straw before he did.

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But this presented an opportunity for me to encourage Meilee as the older sister to help her younger brother and to remind Shen that pouting doesn’t get the job done. They worked together to build Shen’s straw. And then they forgot that it had started out as a contest.

It’s a brilliant kit given that the kids have to think about how to join pieces together in a way that is not only crazy but functional. There is also physics involved: water sprays everywhere if the joints aren’t connected properly to the straws or, if a section of the straw is at an awkward angle, it could knock over a glass. (Yes, water spilled all over the table and the floor.) I imagine that you could hack a kit together using flexible straws. I might explore that with the kids to test their ingenuity.

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Later, during dinner, I asked Meilee what she understood about engineering. Here was her response:

“When you engineer something, you think about how am I going to make this? What materials am I going to need to do it? When you’re building the shapes, it’s fun to learn how to connect the straws and unconnect (sic) the straws. There are different sizes of straws. The small straws help you in small places. The big straws help you in big places. You can make different kinds of things – like a sword. You can be capable of doing lots of things like a house of straws.”

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I was glad she had an inkling, but I also didn’t hear her say something that indicated she understood the thought process behind engineering. She started to give me additional examples related to craft projects – things that weren’t necessarily focused on designing solutions – so I shifted the conversation to talking about how an engineer would approach the challenge of building a bridge across a river.

“An engineer would have to think about the distance across the river, right?” I asked. “And if it’s a highway, the bridge would have to support a lot of cars and big trucks. That would affect the kind of materials that the engineer chooses to build the bridge. If the bridge were just for people, the engineer wouldn’t have to use the same kinds of materials.”

“Logs and rope!” Meilee exclaimed.

Something clicked, but we’ll see what sticks over time. The logs and rope comment reminds me that we could use popsicle sticks to engineer a bridge. A project for another day.

Research: Spatial Ability Indicates Creativity – aka Buy More LEGOs

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Do you have LEGO blocks everywhere in your house like we do? If my son could read, he would be waving this July 15 New York Times article about a recent study on how spatial ability can be a better indicator of a child’s future creativity and innovation than math and verbal skills. From the article:

Cognitive psychologists have long suspected that spatial ability — sometimes referred to as the “orphan ability” for its tendency to go undetected — is key to success in technical fields. Earlier studies have shown that students with a high spatial aptitude are not only overrepresented in those fields, but may receive little guidance in high school and underachieve as a result. (Note to parents: Legos and chemistry sets are considered good gifts for the spatial relations set.)

We have more pieces of LEGO than we can count, especially after my mother-in-law brought over a box of my husband’s bricks she had saved from when he was a child. It’s only July, but Shen has started to ask for a Star Wars LEGO set for Christmas.

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But given this study, which was published on July 15 in the journal Psychological Science, I’d rather get one of the LEGO education sets. If you visit the LEGO education site, you will see sets that focus on science, design and technology and are categorized by school-age group. I have my eye on the Early Simple Machines set, which offers these learning objectives:

  • Exploring basic mechanical principles such as gears, levers, pulleys, wheels and axles
  • Investigating force, buoyancy and balance
  • Solving problems through design

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It’s not cheap, though. One listing on Amazon.com shows the cost is $128. Ouch. It looks like I need to spend some time on Ebay and Craigslist.

Full NYT article

LEGO Education

Learning to Code: Kids Explore MIT’s Scratch Programming Language

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Meilee and Shen react with pure delight after seeing the result of code they programmed, using MIT’s Scratch language.

For a child today, learning to program can be just as useful, if not more, than learning to speak a foreign language like Spanish or Mandarin. In a way, computer code is a foreign language. If you live in a place like Seattle, speaking code is “geek rigueur.” Considering our children are so-called ‘net natives or digital natives who were born in the age of iPhones, tablets and apps, it makes sense for them to have at least a basic understanding of programming. Their vocabulary is utterly different from what my husband and I knew when we were their age. Given the high demand for a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) workforce, I believe that I would be doing my children a disservice if I didn’t expose them to computer programming. Even if they never enter a related field, the thought processes involved with programming can help my kids hone their analytical skills.

Hector Rovira, a co-worker of mine at Institute for Systems Biology who’s a software architect, suggested that I check out Scratch. It’s a programming language developed by MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group. First of all, how cool is it that there’s a Lifelong Kindergarten Group? I love this description of the program:

In school, they learn specific facts and skills, but rarely get the opportunity to design things — or to learn about the process of designing things. Outside school, they interact with electronic toys and games, but they don’t learn how to invent new ones. In the Lifelong Kindergarten group, we’re trying to change that. We believe that it is critically important for all children, from all backgrounds, to grow up knowing how to design, create, and express themselves.

Hector explained that the programming club at his daughter’s elementary school uses Scratch to teach kids about coding and assured me that it would be suitable even for Meilee, who’s 6. So we gave it a try.

The Scratch interface.
The Scratch interface.

Scratch is designed for kids aged 8-16, but anyone interested in learning programming can use the site. You can create any number of projects from simple animations to video games. You also can share your projects with the Scratch community. There’s a helpful tutorial that explains the essentials. When you create a new project, you can choose a character – what’s called a sprite – and then you can program movement, background, sounds, costumes and such. You also can upload original images with which to work. I helped Meilee start the tutorial and then sat back to see what she could do. Basic command scripts are found in color-coded blocks that can be dragged from the master list (above left) to the adjacent scripts pane (above center).

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It wasn’t all fun, as you can see above. But the first time Meilee and Shen saw their character move and change color as the result of scripts that Meilee programmed, they experienced the purest joy (as in the lead photo above). The look in Meilee’s eyes showed a great sense of accomplishment – and that was just from the tutorial.

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An additional point of joy for me is that Scratch is FREE. You have to sign up for an account on behalf of your child, but there’s no cost to join the community or use the site. This is worthwhile computer time. I fully anticipate being able to say to my children, “You can’t play video games unless it’s one you create.” Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but maybe it’s not.

Try Scratch or learn more about the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT.

Watch professor Mitch Resnick, Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group and LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at MIT Media Lab, in his TED Talk explaining why we need to teach kids to code.