2011-01-01

Scratch - programming in disguise

My memory of my introduction to programming is a little fuzzy, but a few notable exposures stand out. In no particular order they were ChipWits, TurboTurtle/Logo, World Builder and a BASIC based program that controlled a little submarine which it seems was tongue-in-cheek called GoSub. Each had it's own reason for sparking some interest in figuring out the logic of a program and each had it's quirks.

I think I spent the most time with ChipWits, an old version for the early Macintosh (Were we up to a "512"(K) or a Plus by this time? I am not sure.) It's simplistic IBOL interface for graphically coding the actions of the little computer on roller skates was easy to grasp, and the sounds and animations as it touched, tasted, ate and zapped (or got zapped) were entertaining.

The TurboTurtle intro was a brief after-class exercise while doing some kind of introduction to computers evening class. I mostly remember pen up, pen down, and seeing the computer screen draw patterns like you could make with a spiral sketch tool.

World Builder started out as a game to play (playing games created with it) but then I wanted to try and make my own story/game. Even though it inspired me to think a lot about the story and programming, I never got more than a basic grasp of the language as I tried learning from other code without a manual. Another hurdle for me was not being particularly artsy so the graphical aspect of the game was pretty lacking.

The "GoSub" program was fun. It seems like it was a program/IDE and a book to teach some programming. I was typing in some actual code that was calling all the drawing routines and it felt like quite an accomplishment when I could actually get the sub to dive and surface and fire a torpedo. The program would have one of those crushing sad mac error messages when the torpedo would hit the target. After a while of not figuring that out I gave up on it.

Looking back and summarizing my experiences, my spark of interest to learn how to program the computer wasn't started by looking at code and thinking "wow, 'declare i integer' looks really amazing. I want to type that all day." No, It was the desire to create something fun that I could then play with or show off to others. Programming was the necessary evil for my desired end.

I want to provide the opportunity for the same spark to code within my own children. Sure, they may not be interested in being programmers, but they will be interacting with computers a lot and it can be helpful to "know how the engine works". Besides, the problem solving and logic skills can be applied to many aspects of life.

At first I thought I could take something like GNU Robots and wrap it in a ChipWits like interface. That turned out to not be a quick task and lead me down the road of exploring other robot programming concepts, most frequently the "robot battle" and even LEGO Mindstorm NXT. It seemed a little too advanced to keep their interest for now, so I looked some more.

There is a lot of buzz about a couple of drag-and-drop programming systems, Scratch and Alice, for introducing programming concepts and empowering people to be creative with their computers.

After watching some videos about Scratch and even more impressively, downloading and playing community contributed programs I'm hoping that my more creatively minded kids will catch some of the vision of how they could use Scratch to express themselves through animated comics (even better than my old friend Comic Strip Factory,) music videos, drawing random patterns (TurboTurtle), and arcade (GoSub) or role playing style games l(World Builder).

The Scratch community gives a lot of opportunity for sharing your strengths to build onto a started project (remixing) or join a team and to show off your works. I think that is a very powerful aspect.

If they push the limits of the Scratch 2d world and are willing to get a little more technical to go 3d, they can step up to Alice and do "Word Builder in 3d". Who knows, maybe one of them will really get into it and be willing to work through How To Design Programs and/or Python Programming: An Introduction to Computer Science or some Python tutorials. Maybe after 10 years they will start to be a really good programmer.

The trick is to get them started and keep it fun and consistent and the best way to do that seems to be for me to do it with them.

4 comments:

jla said...

Another interesting program, eToys of Squeek fame (Squeek e toys, heh.)

http://www.squeakland.org/

jla said...

We posted the Scratch story animation project we made on Monday: http://scratch.mit.edu/projects/jla/1545952

jla said...

Need more bricks for your breakout clone in scratch without cloning sprites hundreds of times? Maybe you're ready to try Build Your Own Blocks Scratch. http://byob.berkeley.edu/

jla said...

Dan Shapiro has taken the Turbo Turtle idea and turns it into a board game. See Robot Turtles on Kickstarter at http://kck.st/17BKz3h