Web Development -A Student’s Gateway to Programming

Web development is an ideal platform for young learners to enter into the world of computer programming. In this article, I’m going to show why this is true and how easily you can get students into programming as well as helping them to develop essential skills, such as proofreading and problem-solving.

html,xhtml,web design,web development,programming,energize education

The foundations of a Web page. Anything between the <body> </body> tags appears on the page.  The <p> and </p> are paragraph markers.  <title></title> are, well, the page’s title.

First of all, (X)HTML, the language used to create Web pages, is easy to learn and uses syntax and mechanics found in true programming languages. Like programming languages, (X)HTML utilizes elements and these elements use attributes to better define them. Arguably, this is where the fun begins. As learners become familiar with elements and their attributes, they will certainly want to experiment with them. Changing an attribute’s values can affect such things as physical appearance or placement on the Web page. Young programmers will quickly familiarize themselves with the practice of tweaking elements’ attributes and, undoubtedly, will be very anxious to learn about more elements, even if it requires doing so on their own time.

Next, (X)HTML grows with the user. Once a user has learned how to create a basic Web page, there is much more to learn. Users can learn to work with formatting, hyperlinks and adding multimedia. From here, users can learn to use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to format the appearance and layout of a page or a whole Web site. Once a learner feels that he or she has mastered (X)HTML and CSS, he or she can be introduced to JavaScript, a language that will endow them with the ability to create more interactive Web sites. From JavaScript, it’s an easy migration to a full-fledged programming language. Also, unlike programming languages such as C, BASIC or Lisp, (X)HTML does not need compiling. Results of changes to code can be viewed immediately.

A very strong argument for introducing learners to (X)HTML is that working with it can cultivate two highly desired abilities -proofreading and debugging skills. These skills are essential in the programming world and proofreading is valued well beyond the world of programming. When a Web page or one of its elements does not look right, there’s only one way to fix it and that’s to find its reference in the code and alter it as needed. This means combing through lines of code sometimes, looking for one thing in particular. Towards this end, problem-solving skills are also developed. If changing the attribute of one element fails to get the desired result, sometimes a developer will have to experiment to find something that works.

energize education, bluefish, html,web development,programming

Bluefish Editor in action

Text editors such as Microsoft Notepad or BBedit for Mac are fine for creating Web pages. However, as your burgeoning Web developers’ skills grow, they may feel constrained by the limitations of such tools. Open source Web development suites/HTML editors such as Bluefish or BlueGriffon, can provide them with a more rewarding environment in which to work. Both are WYSIWYG and include tools that will make Web development easier. Better still, with the W3C’s (World Wide Web Consortium) Tidy installed, code can be validated to identify mistakes and to ensure that it meets W3C standards. The W3C also offers a CSS validation service. These tools make it much easier to debug. Tidy can also be used to “tidy up” code so that it’s easier to read. This is a useful habit for budding developers to get into for just this reason.

The final argument for using (X)HTML as a platform for launching the careers of young developers is the cost. Unlike some commercial programming languages, (X)HTML is free. Not only is (X)HTML free, but so are the open source tools mentioned above, Bluefish, BlueGriffon and Tidy. If, like so many schools and districts, your school or district’s budget is tight, then this is a logical course to pursue. Not that expenses matter to the kids. They’ll just sit down and, after a little instruction, start coding.

Resources

Bluefish Web Site

BlueGriffon Web Site

Tidy Home Page

Tidy Info Page

NtEd -Musical Score Editor for Linux

NtEd is an open source musical score editor for Linux. It seeks to provide a platform for music teachers and students alike for the instruction of reading music, composing music and learning to play instruments. NtEd is an abbreviation of Noteedit, the application’s full name.

nted,score editor, musical score editor

The NtEd Main Window

NtEd developers strove to create an intuitive WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface. This they have achieved with aplomb. The interface is very approachable with a menu bar at the top of the window, and a toolbar below this. Below this is a pane presenting what appears to be a sheet of paper with a stave along the top. A free-floating Toolbox is included for added functionality. Within this toolbox are arrows that allow users to scroll between five different options of items to add to the stave. These include notes, rests and the like that can be clicked on and dragged to a desired location on the stave. Musical composition couldn’t be easier than that.

nted,musicali score editor,music score editor

The NtEd Toolbox

So what can users do with NtEd? By clicking on two notes, they can be tied (legato). These can be used to build cords and tuplets. Instruments can be added to every staff and, thus, a complete orchestra can be created. The Play button allows users to hear the music that they have written. Additionally, NtEd offers support for up to 4 instruments per staff. NtEd includes full compatibility with MIDI, both in terms of MIDI files and MIDI devices.

Other features include, but are not limited to, the ability to transpose a score to a new key, the capacity to mute selected staves and a copy and paste feature. NtEd can create files of the following types: PostScript, SVG, MIDI, PDF and PNG. Creations can be exported to MIDI and MusicXML. Completed projects can even be exported to LilyPond, an open source, text-based musical score editor.

If you’re a music teacher, NtEd is software that your budding impresarios deserve. Check it out. Introduce your students to it. Watch the magic unfurl.

Resources

References

Anders, J.  (n.d). NtEd [computer software].   GNU General Public License.

Anders, J.  (n.d.). NtEd a new and free musical score editor for Linux.  Chemnitz, Germany: Chemnitz University of Technology.  Retrieved from http://www.iiis.org/cds2010/cd2010imc/iceti_2010/paperspdf/eb505ay.pdf

Tip of the Day: Exportability -What It Is & Why You Need It

So, what is exportability and how does it relate to open source educational technology?  Exportability is the ability of an instructional product to be utilized in a setting other than the one for which it was designed.  How do you make an educational product exportable?  It’s not as complex as it sounds.  You simply need to create an instructor’s manual providing information about how to employ the product.  That’s it.  So, if you have a student for whom you’ve created some great instructional materials, be sure to create instructor’s manuals so the educators with whom your student will work in the future will know how to use them.

LibreOffice Math – Computer Programming Starts Here

energize education,libreofficeSo, what is LibreOffice Math and why is it so important to computer programming?  While most people are familiar with LibreOffice, LO Math, the equation editor, is arguably the least known component.  On a whim one day, I decided to check out LibreOffice Math.  The experience was an eye-opener.  This is a wonderful tool for building equations.  The interface is clean and there are features that any mathematician would savor.

libreoffice math coputer programming,energize education

The LIbreOffice Math window

Looking at the screenshot to the right, we see that the LibreOffice Math window is divided into three panes. The two stacked panes on the right constitute the Equation Editor.   The pane on the left is referred to as the Elements window.  The elements presented here are mathematical in nature and can be dragged and dropped to the top pane at right.  The pane below the top right pane presents the equation in a written format, similar to that used in programming languages.  The equation can edited here or in the pane above.  This whole interface is topped off with a toolbar and menu bar at the top of the window.  In regards to elements offered, these include unary/binary operators, trigonometric functions and mathematical relations, as well as providing examples and allowing users to customize the appearance of their equations.

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The author’s circuit

What makes LibreOffice Math so ideal as a learning platform for burgeoning programmers is the fact that it provides them with a means to experiment with and to become more familiar with, Boolean Operators (and, or, not).  Boolean Operators are used by computer programs to tell the computer that a decision must be made at a given point.  For example, the line “if A=no then 100″ tells the computer that if the value of A equals ‘no” then the computer should proceed to line 100 of the program.  It’s a fairly straightforward concept and a skill that should be cultivated early in would-be programmers.  If they have this principle mastered when they first start writing computer programs, then they will be that much farther ahead in the game.

The equations can be fairly complex, depending on the need.  There is a fairly all-inclusive library of equation expressions to draw upon.  Looking at the screenshot above, you can see my modest creation.  It is a circuit created in discrete mathematics.  To the layman, it simply reads “‘A and B’ or ‘B and C’ not ‘A and C'”.  Imagine what an enthusiastic learner could accomplish.

My advice is to take a look at LibreOffice Math for yourself.  You’ll see my point.  When you’re comfortable with it, introduce your students to LO Math.  Once they are familiar with it, you should be able to step back and watch the magic unfurl.

Resources

LibreOffice Download

References

LibreOffice 5.4 help: Instructions for using LibreOffice Math.  (n.d.).  Mozilla Public License.
Retrieved from https://help.libreoffice.org/5.4/gu/text/smath/main0000.html?DbPAR=MATH.

Dressing Up Linux for the Holidays Revisited

This is an update of an article I ran three years ago on customizing Linux for the holidays.  The biggest difference is that the Window Maker theme used is of my own design.

Season’s Greetings, everyone. The holiday season is upon us, so I thought I’d take a break from my usual blog on open source educational technology and write about a something a little more lighthearted.

f you want to make your Linux desktop look more festive for the holidays, all you need is a little time to do this.

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Xscreensaver Preferences Window

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to do add holiday cheer is to set your screensaver to Fuzzy Flakes. If you go into Settings, you can set the background color to something that might be a little more seasonally festive than the default pink. The screenshot on the left shows the Xscreensaver Settings window.

Next you’ll want to set a holiday-themed background.

screenshot of a snow covered lane,holidays

The author’s December Window Maker theme

Simply search for “linux christmas (or the holiday of your choice) wallpaper” in your favorite search engine and you’ll get plenty of hits. Choose one or several of your liking and download them. Once downloaded, use your desktop environment preferences utility to setup the desktop background of your choice. On a related note, you can also find Christmas/holiday themes for your desktop environment or window manager. If you’re experienced in creating Window Maker themes, it’s easy enough to design your own.  Check out the great Window Maker theme, December, that I created in the screenshot to the right.

The next item you’ll want to obtain to complete that holiday look (at least if you live in the northern hemisphere) is Xsnow.

screenshot of Window Maker desktop,holidays

Xsnow running on my festive Window Maker desktop (note Santa and his reindeer just to the left of the center of the screen).

Xsnow is an application developed by Rick Jansen that generates snowfall on your computer screen. You may already have it installed. Open a terminal and type “xsnow” and it should start right up, if it’s installed. A gentle cascade of snow is not all that Xsnow gives you. You also notice tiny fir trees appear on your screen as well. To add to the fun, Santa can be seen driving his sleigh and reindeer through the snow with Rudolph leading the way. Xsnow can be customized in a number of ways, so I’d suggest you read the Xsnow manual page (type “man xsnow” in a terminal window) to learn more. The screenshot shows my Window Maker session dressed up for the holidays with Xsnow running to enhance the effect.

That’s all for now. Have a safe and happy holiday season.

Resources

December Window Maker Theme

Xsnow.

References

Dmytro, B. (2004). Fuzzy Flakes [computer software]. GNU General Public License.

Jansen, R. (2001). Xsnow [computer software]. GNU General Public License.

Whittum, C. (2017). December [computer software].  GNU General License.  Retrieved from http://christopherwhittum.com/window-maker/.

Window Maker [computer software]. GNU General Public License.

Xscreensaver [computer software]. GNU General Public License.

STEM Education & Open Source: Match Made in Heaven

There is a huge push in our schools to introduce learners to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and to cultivate student interest in STEM.  The reason is obvious.  These are fields of technology that will be generating jobs in the future as well as making our world a better place.  So, why do I say that STEM education and open source is a match made in heaven?  Let me elucidate.

energize education,, synaptic

A Synaptic search for “math”

First of all, there is an enormous volume of open source software that involves STEM in one at least one capacity.  Better still, many of these applications are free!  Looking at the screenshot at left, we see the author’s session in Synaptic, a software management application for Ubuntu Linux.  In the lower left-hand corner of said screenshot, we can see that my search for “math” generated 855 hits.  Granted, not all of these are necessarily developed for elementary or secondary classroom use, but you’re sure to find an application that will meet your needs and pique your students’ interest.

energize educaton, colobot

Colobot’s Program editor

One strong argument is the variety of applications available to help students learn computer programming.  There is almost literally something for every taste.  My regular readers will know what a big fan I am of Colobot.  The premise is that you are an astronaut preparing a planet for colonization.  Towards this end, you have programmable robots at your disposal.  They just need instructions (programming) in order to do their jobs.  The screenshot to the right shows Colobot’s Program editor window.  For the artistic, KTurtle, part of the KDE Education Project, allows users to enter code to create colorful patterns.  Laby gives the user a chance to troubleshoot and guide a robot ant through a maze, avoiding or overcoming obstacles.  Laby even allows users to select from a variety of programming languages with which to work.  Etoys integrates art and computer programming by allowing users to create pictures and then to animate these pictures using Squeak, Etoys integrated programming language.  There are other applications, so please shop around to find one that you believe would best stimulate your students’ inner programmers.

Another supporting point for my claim is the number of programming languages available with the installation of an open source operating system, like Linux or BSD UNIX.  Among these are C, C++, Python, Perl, Java and Ruby, which are among the better known, but there are others as well.  Your students can use the above applications to learn to write computer programs and then chose a language through which their newly attained programming skills can be applied.  Each language has its strengths (Perl, for example, is ideal for working with strings of text).  I think the best approach is to help students select the programming language that best matches what kind of program that they would like to write..

energize education, stem, STEM

This final winning scene from Colobot would look just as cool with a woman astronaut.

Probably the strongest argument for my claim is that open source, by its nature, invites the curious.  As users, students have a right, under the GPL (GNU Genreal Public LIcense), to change the software with the intention of improving it.  For example, in Colobot, users can customize their astronaut (hair color, sunglasses, etc.).  The one thing that can’t be customized is the gender of the astronaut.  It’s always a man.  We need a female astronaut as an option.  How cool would it be to be able to say that your students created a female astronaut for Colobot?  Or added enhancements to other pieces of open source software?  Students could look at the development history of the software and see their contribution listed.   How’s that for a well-deserved feeling of accomplishment?  It might take a little time to find open source software that your STEM students will love, but the rewards will be worth it.

Resources

Colobot Web Site

Etoys Home Page

GNU General Public LIcense

KTurtle Home Page

Laby Home Page

References

Breijs, C. (2017). KTurtle [computer software]. KDE Education Project: GNU General Public License.

Colobot [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.

Etoys [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU Genreal Public License.

Laby [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.

Vogt, M. [2012]. Synaptic [computer software]. GNU General Public License.

 

 

 

 

LinCity-NG -I Finally Attained a Self-sustained Society

lincity-ng,energzie enducation through open source

One of my fiine Universities

Regular readers (or should that be “reader”?) of this blog know that one of my favorite open source games with educational potential is LinCity-NG.  This is a port of the classic game SimCity.  What makes it ideal for education is that you could build integrated units focusing on ecology and economics, as, in theory, it is possible to create a society that is self-sustaining economically and in balance with the environment.  I say “in theory” as thia has never been accomplished by me.  Until now, that is.

In order to succeed in attaining such a civilization, you must have one that is economically stable.  This means that your citizens have to be employed, fed and comfortable.  You also need a

lincity-ng,energize education

This Tip has been emptied by surrounding Recycling Centers.

decent technology level (called tech level in the game), which can be attained by constructing Monuments early on, Schools late and, eventually, Universities.  Once this has been attained, you will attain the ability to create four things essential to having a self-sustaining, ecologically-friendly society -Recycling Centers, Parks, Solar Power Stations and the aforementioned Universities.  Recycling centers cut back drastically on waste and can even be used to empty Tips (landfills in LinCity-NG) as they produce ore, steel and other goods through recycling.  Check out the screenshot and you’ll see a Tip that has been emptied by surrounding Recycling Centers.  This limits the waste of society to such things as air pollution.  To combat air pollution, build Parks around Coal fired power stations and other sources of air pollution to shelter residences.  (hint: holding CTRL and P will create a park with a pond.)

lincity-ng,christopher whittum

This simple Park fights air pollution.

Solar Power Plants generate MHz, which can be used to power light and heavy industry, textile mills and other facilities of this nature.  To power homes (KHz), you’ll need to connect these to Substations.  Once you have Solar Power Stations, you no longer need alternative, polluting energy sources, like Coal fired  power stations.  You also no longer need Coal Mines.  This greatly minimizes pollution in general, but especially air pollution.  The one caveat that I would offer is that Solar Power Stations can occasionally catch fire, so be sure to have Fire Departments nearby.

Finally, there are universities.  There has to be four schools for every university.  Also, universities are more expensive to run.  What you gain in exchange for this is the opportunity to more rapidly increase your tech level.

energize education

Solar Power Stations -your best choice for clean energy

So, I have shared my successes with LinCity-NG.  I hope that this well inspire others.  None of my previous ongoing games in LinCity-NG have attained this level of success.  I hope that you can attain it as well.

Open Source Does the Holidays

You can’t say that open source developers don’t appreciate the holidays.  So, why would I make such a strange statement?  Well, bear with me, while I elucidate on this.

vlc,energize education

VLC gets merry.

Let’s take a look at a piece of open source software with which you’re probably familiar –VLC Media Player.  VLC is a versatile media player, available for Linux/UNIX, Apple MacOS and Microsoft Windows, to list a few of its available platforms.  Formats supported include, but are certainly not limited to, AIFF, AVI, MIDI, VCD, Apple QuickTIme, MP4, Ogg, DVD video and WAV.  So, how does this versatile application get into the holiday spirit?  By default, when it is launched, the VLC window displays a picture of an orange and white striped cone, like one you’d see at a construction site.  Starting one week before Christmas, this image changes to an orange and whitecone bedecked with a Santa hat.

 

potato guy,ktuberling,energize education

A Christmas party compliments of Potato Guy (running in the Xfce Desktop Environment, I might add).

The next program I’d like to address is Potato Guy.  As the name would imply, this is a port of the small children’s toy, Mr. Potato Head.  This game was developed by the same team that developed the K Desktop Environment (KDE) and is one of the games that can be installed as part of KDE.  It can also be run just fine without KDE.  The biggest difference between Potato Guy and Mr. Potato Head, apart from the former being software, is that it offers a variety of what it refers to as Playgrounds.  These include, among others, two Potato Guy sessions, Robin Tux (Robin Hood with Tux, the Linux Penguin), Robot Workshop, The Moon and, you guessed it, Christmas.  The user has access to tree decorations, presents, snowflakes, stars and an interesting assortment of animals that can be used to create a jolly little woodland Christmas scene.  Potato Guy, also known as KTuberling, is available for UNIX-based operating systems.

supertux,enerize education through open source

Show ’em what yuletide spirit means, Tux!

Another game that gets into the spirit of the holidays is SuperTux..  SuperTux is an open source spin-off of Nintendo’s Super Mario.  Using keyboard or joystick, the user has to guide Tux the Linux Penguin across Antarctica on a quest to rescue his girlfriend Penny from the evil Nolok.  On the way, Tux has to jump over or duck under obstacles, avoid or overcome adversaries and pick up goodies.  Tux eventually discovers red flowers that endow him with firepower, the attainment of which is indicated by Tux donning a red firefighter’s helmet.  This time of year, however, the red helmet appears as a Santa hat, making Tux look very festive indeed.  SuperTux is available for UNIX-based operating systems, Apple MacOS and Microsoft Windows, among others.

xsnow,open source christmas,energize education

Xsnow running on the author’s Window Maker desktop.

Finally, there’s a little program that will liven up your Linux/UNIX desktop for the holidays, Xsnow.  Xsnow can be run from a terminal and, by default, puts fir trees on your desktop, makes snow fall and wind blow and even shows Santa and his reindeer riding though it all.  The snow flakes actually accumulate on open windows and menus.  Xsnow can be configured from the command line to tweak options like background color, trees/no-trees, number of snowflakes, wind speed and the size of Santa’s sleigh to name a few.  You can read all about these options in the xsnow man page.  Xsnow is available for UNIX-based operating systems.

So now you can liven up your computer experience for the holiday season.  From all of us here at Energize Education, we hope you and your family have a joyous and safe holiday season!

Resources

VLC Media Player Web Site

Potato Guy Home Page

Xsnow Download

Xsnow Man Page

SuperTux Home Page

References

Bischoff, E., Calhoun, J. & Cid, A. A. (2016).  KTuberling [computer software].  GNU General Public License.

Jansen, R. (2001).  Xsnow [computer software].  GNU General Public License.

SuperTux Team.  (2016).  SuperTux [computer software].  GNU General Public License.

VideoLAN.  (n.d.).  VLC media player [computer software].  GNU General Public License.

WriteType -a word processor to help students write

While looking for an open source technology to review, I came across WriteType, .an open source word processor geared towards school-age children.  I work in special education in a middle school and all too often I hear students lament about having to type out assignments.  WriteType through the combination of an accessible interface and valuable features, strives to be a word processor that students can readily use.

writetype,energize education through open source,energize education

The WriteType window

Let’s start by checking out the WriteType window, shown in the screenshot at left.  As can be seen, the interface is WYSIWYG, offering a menu bar and the top of the window and simple toolbars below this.  WriteType offers only the most common word processing features, such as text and paragraph formatting.  Features can be quickly and easily utilized via either the menu or the toolbars.  Simply put, everything a user needs is here.  There are no tabs or complex menus offering features that can confuse new users and into which one could get lost .  This functionality is further enhanced by context menus accessed by right-clicking on the text or area in question.

writetype,energize education,christopher whittum

Note the Word Completion list on the right

So, what makes WriteType ideal for students?  The integration of certain tools takes much of the pain out of writing.  One of these tools is word completion.  As the screenshot on the right shows, as they type, users are presented with a list of suggested words in the gray field on the right-hand side of the screen.  Simply click on the the desired word in the list, or press an indicated function key, and the complete word is inserted into the document.  Another useful feature is the fact that WriteType can read back what users have typed, which will help them to catch mistakes prior to proofreading or printing.

writetype settings,energize education through education

WriteType’s Se tings window

If these features aren’t reason enough to give WriteType some serious consideration, other features include auto-correction and grammar checking.  Users can also add words to the integrated spelling list.  Text highlighting allows users to mark areas of text in need of attention.  Distraction-free mode allows users to work without the added distraction of a menu and toolbars.  Other customizations include adjusting read-back speed as well as changing the font size of the suggested word list.  WriteType also offers multilingual support.  WriteType can be readily customized further via the Settings option under the File menu.  Documents can be saved in either the native WriteType format (.wtd), as formatted text (.html) or as plain text (.txt)

WriteType is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS.  WriteType teacher workshops are available for free to schools in the Minneapolis area.

Resources

WriteType Home Page

Reference

Documentation: a word processor to help students write.  (n.d.).  GNU General Public License.

Shinn, M.  (2010).  WriteType [computer software].  GNU General Public License.

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/