Monday, April 26, 2021

Scratch course new upgrade

This is the third upgrade of a Scratch introductory course and a substantial one at that.

In my previous upgrade I developed some good projects but I gave too much of the code to the students. The problem with that of course is that copying for quite a few students doesn't produce learning. So, this time around I'm providing lots of clues and expecting them to work out how to put the blocks together. Of course, I'll do demonstrations for those who want more clues. I'm hoping this will encourage more trial and error and will end up with more diversity in their project solutions.

I'm keeping the core idea that Scratch multimedia coding is for telling stories in an interesting and entertaining way.

I'm insisting on more collaboration than in the past. For a couple of these projects a requirement is that students choose a partner.

I only teach these Year 7 students for 2 x 55 min periods for 9 weeks so it's not possible to cover all of the many great features of Scratch in that time. For those who work more quickly I do have extension projects planned, either letter magic, my music or make a game

Below I just show the tasks set for the students, not the preparatory clues. Send me a message if you want the full worksheets, I'm happy to share

So, the stories are:

1) Weird animals

Make your animals look and behave weirdly. Do at least two different weird animals.

eg. a cat that thinks it is a dog and barks. It also has it body parts rearranged.

But don’t copy that, use your own imagination and creativity!

2) Animate and Communicate

Choose a partner for this one

Think of a simple story. You will need to choose two sprites. The first sprite moves in some way and talks. The second sprite waits until the first sprite has finished and then responds by moving and talking.

a) Write an outline of your story using words and pics on paper and show the teacher. You will receive more credit if your story is interesting and entertaining!

b) Now develop the story as a Scratch program

3) Glide and Draw with the Pen

a) Get the graph paper with a Cartesian grid from the teacher and draw your initials on the paper

b) Use that as a guide to draw your initials on the Scratch page

4) Teleport

A character teleports from one place to another. On arrival in the new place something surprising happens. Work with your partner to develop this story Make it entertaining.

5) Sensing

Make a sprite do something strange by moving the mouse

At certain mouse positions the sprite talks to the user about what is happening. This varies in different positions.

Include a two colour gradient background

scratch course upgrade
introductory scratch projects with a story theme

Friday, April 23, 2021

some plants of Alice Springs (Mparntwe)

Pictures taken along the Larapinta trail, near the telegraph station

Buffel grass (invasive species, which is everywhere)

Woolly oat grass

Dead finish with its unforgiving rigid and thorny leaves providing protection against water loss and predators

Origin of the name: Either, when this one dies then everything else is finished, or, in a drought the desperate rabbits try to eat its leaves and die in the branchces!

Silver witchetty, the witchetty grubs (yum) feed on the sap inside the roots

Close up of a witchetty showing flowers, seed pod and leaves

Dog wood, identified through the "Central Australian Flora" brochure

Mulga, can survive in the harshest conditions (in 2019 Alice Springs had its lowest rainfall on record, 67.6 mm). The hardwood is useful for fencing and as a fuel for campfires.

Not identified

Sunday, April 18, 2021

the wider walls

In commmemoration of the 50th anniversary of "Twenty Things to do with a Computer" by Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon


“the room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away”
- Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harem (1967)

Seymour was very good at finding a great pithy expression to describe a learning event. For example, he described the turtle as “an object to think with”. Another such expression is “wide walls”, to express a diversity of doing, but I’m less certain about who coined that one.

I wasn’t aware that the concept of wide walls (as distinct from the expression) was there from the start. I thought there was a transition as the baton passed from Seymour to Mitch Resnick. Not only did the turtle become a cat but, in my mind, the philosophy also changed from “low floor, high ceiling” (Seymour) to “low floor, wide walls” (Mitch).

Being a long way away, in Australia, perhaps I missed some nuance. Maybe someone closer to MIT can fill me in. In reading “Twenty Things ...” I can see the wide walls were there from the beginning: floor turtle, screen turtle, turtle graphics, game making, movies, music, robots, light displays, poetry, physics, curiosity about self, even making fun of Computer Aided Instruction.

Nevertheless, we owe a lot to the Scratch team for continuing to lower the floor (block coding), opening the windows (remix and a web site where it is so easy to share) as well as wider walls (easy to code multimedia and extensions to music, the micro:bit, Makey Makey and others). The user interface, with its colour coding of blocks into categories has always been brilliant.

What attracted me to computers in the first place was Seymour’s book “Mindstorms” with its intention of making maths more accessible to those who struggle with textbook maths or maths in general. Start by drawing a square using your body. Build further from that simple starting point by changing the angles, changing the number of repeats and introduce variables. This approach was both more interesting and could bring maths to more students.

Tinkering: Seymour was also there early on in a collaborative article with Sherry Turkle, “Epistemological Pluralism”. Ostensibly, this was directed at the needs of girls but in reality, it was about those who tinker or the bricoleurs. It’s better to initially allow sloppy code (spaghetti) and for design to iterate through stages. If a teacher insists on getting it perfect from the start then that is a sure way to kill motivation in many students. If only the standards based curriculum designers, remote from the classroom, who separate the what from the how, understood that. This was pointed out by Mitch Resnick in a recent exchange with Mark Guzdial in the comments at Mark’s blog. There are those who understand how the wider walls can work and those who, through not understanding, put up barriers to them working.

In my research, I came across a thesis by Jennifer Cross where she designed a course called Arts & Bots. Taking this cue, I wrote a submission for a new course in my current school and called it Artbotics. Rather than robotics, we can have Artbotics, with the Hummingbird Bit. Let us create a provocative, tangible sculpture and then add robotic actuation and sensing. This reframing of robotics makes a difference. The artbotics word hit a nerve since there is an ongoing desire for school administrations to introduce more creative middle schooling curricula. I see Artbotics as another expression of wider walls, integrating different subjects in the curriculum into a whole which students find more meaningful.

As Seymour pointed out, the computer has a protean nature and can be used as a multimedia hard fun machine. It is also true that the division of Knowledge into different subject domains, although useful in some ways, has always created artificial distinctions too. Maths can be Arty. Art can be Mathy.

Look up Wassily Kandinsky for more like this

In Central Australia, where I live, there is a famous indigenous art movement called Papunya Tula. One of its core motifs is dotted circles. I had a go at simulating parts of that work using SNAP and the local gallery in Alice Springs agreed it was worthwhile. I invite you to see the simulations at my blog, with a link to the SNAP program where you can do your own.

By making art a real part of the plan we soften the traditionally hard cultures of the STEM subjects and broaden the appeal of the whole mix. It has to be real and it can be real because digital by its nature does embrace everything. A program such as Scratch is multimedia with built in icons, backgrounds, sounds, music, speech with all of them editable. The coding is there too, of course, and the purpose of the coding is to bring the multimedia to life.

As well as art, storytelling needs to be in there too. I managed to rewrite all my introductory Scratch projects as short stories rather than lessons in technique, eg weird animals where the dog meows and the cat barks. This serves as a good model for later when I ask students to create their own stories.

One of the best expressions of the wider walls concept is a 2005 article by Mitch Resnick and Brian Silverman about how to evaluate construction kits. We need those design principles now with all the new construction kits (and this also applies to the new microcontrollers and new software) that have come on stream.

A key principle here is that a little bit (of programming) goes a long way. By using the KISS principle, new users will make a fast start and the possibility is there to transition rapidly to projects they really want to do, not just can do.

When it comes to learning principles the value of tinkering and iteration (iterate, iterate, iterate …) as well as curriculum integration also fit under the rubric of wider walls.

You can see the same KISS principle designed into Turtle Art (by Brian Silverman and Artemis Papert). Its variety of coding blocks is restricted yet you can make beautiful art readily. See some beautiful Turtle Art here

Here's a sample from my article How to create a great background in Turtle Art:

What I’ve really been looking for is a pithy expression to describe the ongoing evolution of the creative use of computers in education. In reading “Invent to Learn” (thanks to Gary and Sylvia) I was struck by the three game changers assertion, the game changers being coding, physical computing and fab labs. Could there be a pithy expression to describe these?

Possibly “wide walls”, although a good try, lacks a bit of oomph, requires too much explanation and can only be stretched so far. Can we set the world on fire with wider walls? Perhaps. As my students explore more I do feel the room humming harder ... but I am still not satisfied that it is an adequate descriptor.

Jay Silver takes this a step further when he situates his invention, Makey Makey, within a larger context. He designs tools which enable a sensual re-experiencing, a re-seeing, of the everyday world. With Makey Makey you can make an orchestra which is played by pieces of fruit, rather than a keyboard. Digital meets the banana. It began with Seymour’s insight that the turtle could be “an object to think with” and has now further developed, in Jay Silver’s words, into conceiving the whole “world as a construction kit”.

The world as construction kit has a very long history. Indigenous Australians used to live off the land and made all their tools, as well as their food and medicine, directly from nature. When they looked at the natural environment they saw a construction kit.

The part of this argument that I like is that our perception is a variable: we can design new tools, like Makey Makey, which changes the way we perceive the computer / keyboard. Insofar as modern consumerism can kill off self reliant productivity this new way of perceiving is a good thing.

Wouldn’t it be desirable for many more of us to become more maker orientated, particularly if the developments in modern technology lower the entry barriers? From STEM to STEAM then moves on to STEAM for the 99%.

STEAM for the 99% means bringing all of the subjects to a broader audience. This may be achieved through diverse cross curricular subjects which go under names like Artbotics, Digital Wearables, Culturally Situated Design Tools and Unruly Splats.

When the computer is used as a dynamic (programmable) multimedia fun machine it becomes the best tool available for wholesale curriculum integration. In other words it’s time to merge the computer into the world with all its junk. If that isn’t wider walls, then what is it?

Cross, Jennifer. Creative Robotic Systems for Talent-Based Learning (2017)
Culturally Situated Design Tools
Makey Makey
Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (1980)
Papert, Seymour and Solomon, Cynthia. Twenty Things to do with a Computer (1971)
Resnick, Mitchel and Silverman, Brian. Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids (2005)
Silver, Jay LENS x BLOCK: World as Construction Kit (2014)
Stager, Gary and Martinez, Sylvia. Invent to Learn (2nd Edition, 2019)
The goal of a first CS course should be to promote confidence …
(see comments 2, 3, 11, 13, 14, 15 and 16 for discussion between Mitch Resnick and Mark Guzdial)
Turkle, Sherry and Papert, Seymour. Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete (1991)
Unruly Splats

Thursday, April 15, 2021

CPX gondola

Rob Morrill has written a course of Circuit Playground Express projects for adafruit. One of them is the gondola which I feature here.
I didn't have to make any modifications to this one but here are a couple of notes about the materials.

I used velcro to stick the CPX to the cardboard. Better if you can find a "Heavy Duty" velcro, holds 3 kg, which I found at Bunnings.

The shelf, supported by gusset braces, for the battery is important so the gondola hangs perpendicular. Wrap a piece of masking tape all the way around the battery for extra support.

See the video for my gondola in action!

Monday, April 12, 2021

CPX bike helmet prototype

I followed the procedure (helmet) authored by Rob Morrill on the adafruit site. Rob’s personal web site is here. He has great ideas there.

Here are a few notes about the materials since it saves a lot of time if you get them right at the start.

I had to find a piece of cardboard as long as the circumference of my head (56 cm).

I like duct tape because it really does stick and also used it to repair the cardboard which was damaged in a couple of places.

The battery holder I used (AAA) had an on/off switch and a belt clip. The belt clip made it easy to attach the battery to the cardboard

I kept the “right” and “left” variable declaration and “on start” code the same as Rob’s but altered the tilt right and tilt left functions since they required tilting the head at an extreme angle before they kicked in. My altered code is:
This means that as soon as the head stops tilting the indicator lights change back to solid pale blue.

I’m looking forward to some of my students making this helmet prototype. The reaction when I have shown them has been extremely positive. I receive lots of requests from students who want to wear the helmet.