MindLab is a program for teaching problem solving and thinking skills with board games. My friend Avram, of Evolvems fame, turned me onto this program. I have not seen their program in action, but I met with the folks in charge of NYC MindLab, and was very impressed with their spiel.
The main idea is: you teach kids how to play any one of 200 games they have collected. Once the kids get the feel for the game and are struggling to master it, you step in and show them one of a dozen problem-solving methods MindLab has identified. They have cute names to help memorization and discussion. The kids learn the method quickly and then you move them to a second game. When the kids see this strategy works in two games, the method starts to stick in their brain. But the final and most important step is to transfer these methods to general life situations.
One method they described was the Stoplight method. The stoplight method is three steps: red, yellow and green. When you are playing your game, first do red: stop what you are thinking about (usually your next move) and think instead about our opponent. What is he thinking about? What move would he like to do. Yellow is to consider a counter-move. Finally with Green you choose your move, either a defense or an attack.
This method sounds fantastic—it’s an vital strategy for any competitive game. But it can be applied so much more broadly. Imagine a conflict with a classmate. The “red light” step is to put yourself in your opponent’s shoes. Consider how he sees the situation and figure out what his move might be. But this is exactly what conflict resolution courses teach—think about the other’s position. Once you can see the other person’s point of view, most conflicts can be resolved peacefully. Those that cannot, can be more successfully fought.
The stoplight method and dozens more are part of the MindLab curriculum. But in the end, it all comes down to the teachers. A great teacher will find teaching moments everywhere. The best curriculum in the hands of a poor teacher will just be boring with lots of wasted time.
Flip Boom is a simple animation application for Mac OS X and Windows. It comes from the makers of Toon Boom, a well regarded animation package. I haven’t tried it out, but it looks cool from their website.
Only tangentially related to Stratolab, I just heard about a very interesting place in Brooklyn — LEMUR. They build musical robots and installations. I happened to meet one of the artists, Joshua Goldberg, and he is a fascinating guy. With a background in music, theater, computers and mechanics, his work looks very interesting.
Why are all comics about other people? Aren’t you the most interesting person around? Should you be a super hero instead of that Clark Kent dude? Here’s your chance. Starting January 4, our own Sebastian Mondrone will be coaching a new version of this course on creating cartoons using Comic Life and iMovie. For more information, see the course description.
Some of you may have heard of WNBC’s news segment “Wednesday’s Child”. Every week Janice Huff interviews a foster child who would like to be adopted. They find out some interest of the child such as sports, music, or…video games, and they arrange for him or her to get a lesson. It’s a wonderful program.
They found me somehow and asked if I could teach a young man named Mauricio a bit about video game programming, and then use my studio for the the interview. I was honored to help out and I had a really good time with Mauricio. He was quiet but very intelligent and picked up what I was showing him immediately. I wish him the best fortunes for his future. Truly a worthwhile cause and I was glad to help in a small way.
MIT’s Media Lab has just released Scratch. Scratch is a drag-and-drop development environment for writing visual programs such as animations or video games. It has a similar interface as StarLogo TNG, also from MIT, but it is much faster and easier to use. Other kid’s programming environments I’ve looked at such as StageCast, AgentSheets, and ToonTalk pale in comparison. StageCast and AgentSheets use a rule-based programming system which is an interesting concept. However I’ve used StageCast extensively, and I find its rule-based programming quickly becomes unwieldy for games of moderate complexity. Also it is so different from regular programming, it doesn’t help students much when they move to a different language like Python. ToonTalk is promising, but currently runs for Windows only, and it is feeling a bit antiquated.
Scratch is great for teaching programming. Writing a program is quick and easy to get students started fast. More complex concepts such loops, decisions, and event-driven programming are made visible. And best of all, variables are made visible which I find to be the most complex concept for a beginner. I’ll be writing some test games shortly and probably soon will show it to my younger programming students. The only thing I can see that it is missing is the ability to make a stand-alone program. You have to run your programs in the Scratch environment.
I’ve been reading about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project and especially about their new user interface, Sugar. I’m very impressed with the thinking that’s gone into this machine to make it suitable for classrooms. For me, the ideal classroom is filled with kids working on projects and learning as they go. As they figure something out, they exclaim to their friends, “Oh cool. Hey Johnny, check this out…” That enthusiasm makes the classroom buzz and the learning starts building it’s own momentum. At this point the children are the teachers as well as the learners, and you can almost feel their brains expanding and shifting to take in new knowledge.
Whereas regular computers are designed so a single person can do work on it, that paradigm doesn’t work so well for classrooms. The OLPC interface brings so many great ideas in such as collaboration among friends, sharing your work, and learning from your peers as well as a teacher. All these things are possible of course on your traditional Macintosh or Windows computer, but you need to make a special effort. The OLPC brings it to the fore, so it becomes a dominant theme. I’m very impressed, and hope to do some work in it in the future. By the way, they use Python to program it.
Some of my students have been using Comic Life to work on storytelling. I was inspired to use comics with my students by my friend Sebastian Mondrone who is an amazingly creative guy and a comic author himself. Comics are a great way to work on creative writing at a younger age because the visuals make it compelling, and you can tell a lot of story with just a bit of writing.
One thing that I’ve realized is that what I think is a good story is not necessarily what others think, and that it’s important to let students have the freedom to express their ideas despite my better judgement.
For more examples of Comic Life storytelling, check out Ido and Jordan’s page.
I went to my first meeting of dorkbot on Wednesday. Dorkbot has a great motto: “people doing strange things with electricity.” Who can resist the temptation of such an intriguing description? Dorkbot is a series of monthly meetings where a few people demonstrate their inventions and take questions. My favorite was Bret Doar demonstrating some rickety devices constructed from old bicycle wheels that produce erie space-age music/noise. Jon Lippincott’s algorithmically generated virtual solar system and David Kareve’s horrified robot art were also fascinating.
The best thing about the dorkbot meeting was the exhilaration of imagining what can be made out of garbage—old bicycle wheels, motors from broken printers and fax machines—if only you have time time and ingenuity to do it. I’d like to make a course for just this sort of creativity—robotic sculpture out of household junk. I wonder if people would be interested.
I have released my learning tool, MakeBot, as open-source software. There is a new website: stratotools.python-hosting.com which holds all the source-code for the tools developed here. The latest addition is MoonUnit, a 3D graphics library. It’s under development for courses I will give this summer. So far you can draw spheres, boxes, cylinders and cones in 3D. You can also load .3DS format models into your scene.