MIT Scratch: A Global Language in Action

MIT Scratch: A Global Language in Action

MIT Scratch: A Global Language in Action

With coding education, everything is no longer a black box, of course. Since this increasingly popular discipline was first focused on one main area (tech), today, it has progressed to become a global language.

And MIT is trying to keep up. In 2012, the school launched MIT Scratch, a community-driven toolkit for coding. The software is an open-source platform that anyone can use to create games, animations, and more.

“It’s really changed to an open-source platform,” says Ed Lazowska, a Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, one of Scratch’s original creators. “And since Scratch is a fun, social community, it’s been about teaching people how to do great work that matters.”

With the help of experienced professors, MIT is working on apps and software tools to enrich and expand Scratch’s offerings, and it’s available as part of MIT’s Teaching Applications course. “By having the ability to have students in their third or fourth year of the Ph.D. program develop applications from scratch, we really have a lot of direct work for faculty to work on,” says Lisa Girard, the program’s Director of the Skirball Center for Interactive Computing and Interactive Video.

Having the ability to have students in their third or fourth year of the Ph.D. program develop applications from scratch, we really have a lot of direct work for faculty to work on.

One app developed from scratch was used in a PBS NewsHour special on child soldiers by a development student named Erika Solt. She came up with the idea for Skimmer, a tool that helps children see their daily activities projected onto a physical exercise mat. Solt’s app is a good example of what she can do with Scratch–which allows her to jump into her design without spending a year working with algorithms. (The Scratch user interface and techniques are detailed on the program’s website.)

“When I came to Scratch, people already were doing really interesting stuff, so I was really excited about what we could do. We’re already able to get to the point where we know we can build an app that will be interesting and hopefully have a life of its own,” says Solt.

Scratch is still evolving. When it launched, users wrote simple sentences, notes, and other messages in the JavaScript that was shipped with the package, now that most people are writing their code in their browser, or creating code in an alternative environment, such as PHP or the web, which Scratch is still relying on. But, as with any tool, the longer it stays open source, the greater the potential to innovate.

Sarah Bonn, a second-year student in the Computational Graphics and Communication course where Skimmer was developed, had a similar experience when she ran into the program’s site. She had never used a JavaScript code editor, let alone interacted with one. “I completely immersed myself in it, and I love it,” says Bonn. “I learned how to create beautiful, polished graphics. It opened up my world of visual design.”

Scratch has evolved over the years, from just being a simple language for using websites to being more like a really fun game, or building projects.

I completely immersed myself in it, and I love it.

But, the diversity of projects being done with Scratch is so strong that educators are pushing for more applications. Girard cites the growing interest in botnets, or large-scale artificial intelligence networks. “There is a growing interest in botnets, because [it]’s all about creating distributed parts to help an attacker take over a network,” she says. While bots with artificial intelligence powers can certainly be used as massive spamming tools, they also serve as a sandbox for learning and self-learning bots.

“As students learn about that, we want to prepare them to think, ‘What do you want to do, what can I do, how can I use this to my benefit?’” says Girard. “Instead of teaching machine learning, we want to bring that way of thinking into all programming.”

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