Category Archives: Interesting for Educators

Scratch – from MIT Media Lab

 scratch_for_video_game_programmingMIT’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 StageCastAgentSheets, 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.

OLPC and Sugar

laptop_for_learningI’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.

Comic Life for Learning Storytelling

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.



Musical Robot at DorkBotI 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.

MakeBot Released — A Simple IDE for Python and Game Programming

I have released my learning tool, MakeBot, as open-source software. There is a new website: 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.

TechForum Conference

Last month I attended the TechForum conference on technology in education. It was a very enlightening day with many interesting sessions to see and people to meet. My favorite two points were the keynote speech on what education should be striving for in the 21st century, and a session on games used for education. I also met a number of people including Susan McLester, editor in chief of Technology and Learning Magazine. We talked about teaching with games and she is very interested in the subject. She just published a second article on Student Gamecraft (registration required). I also met Laura Allen of Vision Education, who teaches Lego robotics to kids and formerly worked with Professor Seymour Papert. Again we talked at length about games in education and I found the conversation inspiring.

Bernie Trilling from Think Quest spoke about what challenges the next century would bring and how schools and education must adapt to meet them. He identified the key skills needed for the 21st century to be communication, collaboration, problem solving, and perseverance. He then discussed what conditions must be present for the next generation to learn these skills, and I was excited to hear we agree completely. Students must see their education as relevant, have the freedom to experiment, and accept failure. He hit the nail right on the head–our future depends on our ability to work in an information society that works as a team, and is adaptable and innovative. These are precisely the traits I hope to foster in my courses by stressing teamwork and working on open-ended problems where students really have to think up their own solutions rather than apply solutions repeated from a text book.

The games in education session was close to my heart since I am thinking and working so much on how to apply games to the problem of teaching. Eric Klopfer at MIT spoke about one of his fascinating projects, StarLogo TNG, which is a programming environment that uses a graphical programming language. It’s supposed to be available soon, and I’d like to use it in my courses. Another speaker was Bill Mackenty who is a teaches middle school in Edgartown, MA. He talked about all the ways he uses games such as Civilization and Age of Empires to teach history and other subjects in his computer lab. He has a website with extensive advice on how games can be used to teach.

A Review of “The Will To Learn”

Martin Covington – Cambridge University Press

This book is truly an inspiration to us. Martin Covington, a professor of psychology at our own U.C. Berkeley, analyzes motivation in today’s schools and offers his recipe for enthusastic students. I’ll outline his basic themes here, but you should really read his book if you are at all interested in making schools engaging places to learn, instead of boring places to listen to lectures.

The Will To Learn begins discussing aspects of motive including emotion, thought, self worth, and fear of failure. For example, there is a noted shift in attitude around the end of elementary school where children no longer strive to please the teacher, but start to prefer “coolness” in the eyes of their peers. At this time, students start to equate success with innate ability rather than effort. That is you will be successful if you are “smart” rather than if you work hard. The smarter you are, the less you have to study, and conversely, the dumber you are the more you need to study. Thus a contradictory motive is established where if you study very hard and get an “A”, that’s good, but it shows you are not as smart as somebody who got the A without studying. Alternatively, if you don’t study, you might get a good grade showing you are smart, but at worst you have the excuse of, “oh, I didn’t study for that.” Thus the optimum strategy when innate ability is favored over effort, is to put the least amount of effort in. Sound familiar to any teenagers you know? Covington goes into many more aspects of motiviation which sets the stage for understanding motive and how competition work together.

Another key to motivation is interpreting failure. Students who succeed take a failure in stride, learning from their mistakes, correcting them, moving on to mastery. Students who consider a mistake failure in it’s own right cannot move past to success. Thus it is essential to teach students how to interpret failure as good.

Competition in America is regarded as beneficial in most endeavors including education. Mr. Covington argues that motivating via competition only works with certain types of students, an alienates more then it motivates. In a competitive class, the challenge for the top spot soon settles to just a few students, while the majority has no hope to achive the top scores. And it doesn’t make sense that student A should be considered successful only if he is better than student B. The goal of learning is to better onself not others. But when all students must learn a subject in the same time period, and then take a test, then only the fastest learners can hope to succeed. Covington proposes a grading scheme where effort and mastery is rewarded rather than speed and ability. If a student is graded on how many subjects are mastered then the student herself can choose to work more to get the grade she wants. In such a situation, students can be rewarded for helping each other instead of hindered.

After discussing aspects of motivation, Convington outlines what our modern society demands from educated youth. Basic math, reading and writing are of course necessary. But increasingly important are creativity and self expression, problem discovery as well as problem solving, planning strategy, and probably formost an enjoyment of learning.

Covington arrives at his recipe for educational change-games. Games and play are often considered the opposite of work yet there are many things to learn from games. One says “to play your cards right” which implies strategy and planning. Likewise, “she can play the piano,” means she is skilled using that instrument. Covington describes a breed of games which foster all the qualities discussed so far-motivation via competition and cooperation, rewards for trying and failing as well as succeeding, and infinite play. He gives half a dozen examples such as an expedition to colonize Mars, or to battle an infectious virus.

The Will To Learn is a compelling argument for games as teaching tools. It’s not as revolutionary as it sounds though. Many of the aspects of his games are really just group projects where the group decides what the problem is, how they want to approach it, divide responsibilites, etc. Perhaps the game aspect is most significant in how he arranges rewards and competition with deliberate goal of promoting both effort and results. His chain of reason is well developed and researched and goes through all the subtle interactions of motivation, reward and punishment, relationships between peers and the teacher, and each person’s intrinsic desire for learning. I highly recommend this book.

– Winston – November 2004