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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/