Scratch: The Launchpad for Students’ STEM Careers

If you haven’t heard of Scratch, then you’ve been missing out and so have your students. Scratch is an open source programming environment, with an integrated programming language also called Scratch, created by MIT with the goal of introducing users, especially young people, to computer programming. Users can create interactive stories, games and graphics. Furthermore, these creations can be shared with others via Scratch’s Web site. This is an excellent way to introduce your students to STEM.

What makes Scratch so special? To begin with, the interface is unlike that of any application of this type that I have seen. A menu bar/toolbar is provided for frequently used tasks, such as opening saved projects and sharing completed projects. From there, the interface goes in its own unique

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The Scratch initial start-up screen

direction, but still remains very user-friendly. In lieu of the traditional text editor/display pane layout, Scratch utilizes four panes, each with a specific purpose and interface. Operation and manipulation of objects is almost entirely point-and-click. This is arguably from where much of its ease-of-use comes.

One of the biggest differences between Scratch and other applications of this type is how the programs are written. Rather than typing code into a text editor, users are provided with a switchboard at the top of the leftmost pane. The buttons on the switchboard represent eight categories of commands that can be employed. The commands appear below the switchboard and can be

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The author’s Scratch session

added simply by clicking on them and dragging them to the pane on the right. Here the commands can be connected in a fashion that combines a flowchart with puzzle pieces. Programs, called scripts, can be created for any object (sprite) that the user creates. These scripts integrate variables as well, such as waiting times for events or results of interaction with other objects.

Finally, one of the really cool things about Scratch is the integrated graphics system. This includes a versatile drawing tool as well as graphical images included with Scratch. The drawing tool runs in its own window and provides users with everything they need to create colorful, detailed sprites. These sprites can in turn be modified under the Costumes tab in the same pane into which programming commands are placed. Using this feature, animations can be easily created using two or more costumes for a sprite. Users can also create backgrounds or select backgrounds from Scratch’s media library. The author used just such a background for his outer space scene shown in the screenshot above.

I cannot even begin to do this application justice here. Check out the Scratch creations submitted to the Scratch Web site. Try it for yourself. Then introduce your students to Scratch and watch worlds unfold.

Scratch Web site: http://scratch.mit.edu/

Energize Education Tip of the Day!

I’m currently working on an article about a brilliant piece of open source software called Scratch. It’s created and maintained by MIT and designed to teach beginning computer programming to young people, but gives them the opportnity to create interactive stories and games. These can then be shared with others online. I’m really excited about this fun and versatile application. The screenshot below provides a preview of Scratch.

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Scratch on initial startup

So You Say Your School Or District Can’t Afford to Automate?

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Energize Education Tip of the Day- The KDE Education Project

Today I want to focus on the KDE Education Project or KDE-Edu. As you may know, KDE (K Desktop Environment) is an open source graphical interface for UNIX-based operating systems like Linux. KDE-Edu is a project started by the people at KDE with the intention of developing educational open source software for all ages, both learners and teachers. ktouch,kde-edu,kde edu,kde education project

The software that they produce addresses language arts, mathematics, science and social studies as well as other areas of learning, such as computer programming and occupational therapy. Language arts appplications range from KHangman, a variation of the popular word game to KWordQuiz, a vovabulary builder, to Parley, a powerful vocabulary assessment tool. Mathematics applications range from KBruch, a tool for quizzing users about fractions and facotrizations to applications addressing more advanced topics, such as KAlgebra for graphing algebraic expressions and Kig, an interactive geometry tool.

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Kalzium, an interactive table of the elements.

In terms of science software, KDE Edu has some interesting offerings. These include, but are not limited to, an interactive periodic table of the elements, Kalzium, a virtual planetarium for your computer desktop, KStars and Step, an application that allows users to create virtual two-dinmensional physical science experiments. If you’re looking for social studies applications, check out Marble, a virtual globe that allows users to view Earth from various perspectives including geographical, historical and climate or KGeography, an application that quizzes users on their geographical knowledge including locations, capitol cities and flags.

Other applications include KTurtle, a program teaching beginning computer programming, KTouch, a typing/keyboarding tutor and KLettres, a tool for teaching younger students how to write their letters.

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Ktouch typing trainer

I cannot do KDE-Edu justice in this short space. There are more applications available than I have discuessed here. I urge you to check them out. They’re open source, free and will soon (as of this writing) be available for Microsoft Windows.

Energize Education Tip of the Day!

Marble is an open source virtual globe for your computer. I’ve written about Marble before, but it’s been awhile so I thought I’d revisit this application and share some of the features that have been introduced. Marble offers a variety of ways in which to view the Earth, including, but not limited to a geoographical map, precipitation, a street map and satelite view. There are many other maps that are availiable as add-ons, including globes of the planets and moons, historical globes from a variety of eras, a hike and bike map, public transportation maps and several maps created by MapQuest. In addition to all of this, Marble can be readily customized via its menus. Marble is part of the KDE Education Project and runs on Linux, Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS.

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Marble showing the Earth at night (note: I’ve zoomed in on a particular region. Where?).

Energize Education Tip of the Day!

GIMP is a very powerful, feature-rich and versatile image creation and editing tool. Better still, it’s open source. Users can do everything from simple photo enhancement to creating lively, eye-catching graphics. Among the tools built into GIMP are a wide variety of brushes, special effects for customization and support for layers. Web masters can even use GIMP to create image maps. In short, GIMP has every feature you would expect to find in a modern image editing application.

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The author created this parody of a popular product using GIMP.

Energize Education Tip of the Day!

If you’re looking for a full-featured spreadsheet application that is light on system resources, you should take a look at Gnumeric. Gnumeric is an open source electronic spreadsheet program that is free, fast, light and stable. Users will find all of the tools one would expect to find in a spreadsheet -a sum tool, statistical analysis, cell formatting and graph/chart generation and insertion. These are just a few of the useful tools available. So check out Gnumeric and find your next spreadsheet application.

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Could Gnumeric be your next spreadsheet?

Energize Education Tip of the Day!

It’s summertime again (at least in the northern hemisphere). You’ll no doubt be taking lots of photos to cpature some memories. If you want a cutting-edge application to edit your photos, you need look no further than GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program). GIMP is a powerful and versatile open source application for creating and editing images. GIMP is every bit as feature-rich as Adobe PhotoShop, but at none of the financial expense. So why pay big bucks to modify your summer photos, when a viable alternative is so readily available?

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Summer fun viewed in GIMP.

Energize Education Tip of the Day!

In my household, we have four shared computers, two desktops and two laptops (I’m not including the three tablets). Three of the computers (one desktop and the two laptops run Xbuntu Linux. The other computer runs Microsoft Windows 7. I can say without a doubt the computers running Linux are the least maintenance. They’re very stable and extremely secure. I have spent hours, sometimes days, attempting to liberate the Windows 7 computer from viruses, spyware and malware. The only maintenace I perform on the Linux computers includes sfotware upgrades, initial launch housekeeping and occassional operating system reinstallation to restore the computer to “new” condition. By the way, the tablets all run Android, a Linux-based operating system. Linux just saves me an enormous amount of time and nearly as many headaches.

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Tux the Linux Penguin

Energize Education Tip of the Day!

It’s that time of year again. Time for school districts to start putting their budgets together for the next fiscal year. As we’re all aware, some wonderful innovations will end up on the fiscal chopping block. A Student Information System doesn’t need to be one of them. Student Information Systems (SIS) allow school districts and their faculty and staff to store student information in a place where it can be readily accessed by other faculty and staff, students and even students’ parents or guardians. This space is on a Web server. Student Information Systems can track such information as schedules, academic performance, parent contact information and interventions. So why do I say that something that sounds so expensive doesn’t need to be cut from the budget? The answer is SchoolTool. SchoolTool is a full-featured, open source Student Information System. With SchoolTool, your district can have ready access to student information usually only possible with expensive proprietary software.

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This screenshot shows a typical record for a (fictional) student. (Thanks to Tom Hoffman for permission to use this screenshot from the SchoolTool Web site).