Scratch that programming itch
Ten-year-old Azaza Dafaa is experimenting with different characters. With her partner Libby Sharkey, also 10, she is designing a computer game and sets the program so that the cat sprints across the screen. Then they try out a ghost gliding. Their next step is to see if they can have both characters moving at the same time.
"I have done a bit of programming before," admits Azaa. "My dad fixes computers."
Azaa is, not surprisingly, in the minority. The fact that all hands go up when the pupils are asked who plays video games is also no surprise. And the idea of designing one certainly appeals.
"Kids are great consumers of technology," says Lynne Kerr, director of Computer Xplorers South East Scotland. "But this is about creativity. Teaching needs to be more about this than about being a passive consumer. We teach animation skills. Young people need to have up-to-date skills."
The P6 children from Dalry Primary in Edinburgh are taking part in an Introduction to Computer Programming workshop. Using the character Scratch, they learn how to code and program their own video game, and, using step-by-step programming instructions, they learn how to use different types of command to animate characters and objects, create backgrounds and add music and sounds.
Designed for children in P4-7, the method used is easy and the children drag and drop instructions into the script, increasing and decreasing the speed at which their character moves, changing the character, and adding speech.
Ms Kerr walks them through the instructions, but some are already far ahead. While Azaa and Libby play around to see if they can get the ball to bounce at the other side of the room, Ejan Da Silva is making an airport for his plane to land. Elsewhere, there are teenage characters having a conversation, and cats walking so fast that they fly off the screen.
"They are much more adventurous than a room full of adults would be," laughs their teacher Eleanor Cooper. "They are trying different things. It's great. I just had one little girl say to me, 'Nobody in the class would think this is boring.' It is very much their sort of thing and they have all done something quite different."
Scratch is a child-friendly character, chosen because children can relate to it. Free to download from the internet, it acts as an introduction to programming for children, demonstrating what programming is, and that it is something they can do.
Coming from a background in IT, Ms Kerr is very aware of the need for children to learn about programming. "There is a big gap in real technology skills," she says.
"Windows is OK, but they need more. This is about getting them at an early age and getting them enthusiastic. By the time girls get to secondary school, they have lost interest. I often speak to secondary teachers who only have four or five girls in a (computing) class of 30. I think there is definitely a gap coming up in video games. They are crying out for people in IT."
Earlier this year, Scotland's chief scientific adviser Professor Muffy Calder said she wanted schools to treat computing science on a par with physics, chemistry and biology (TESS, 17 February). And in Ms Kerr's experience, teachers want to expand what children are taught.
"Teachers are keen," she says. "They see the benefits of what we do. It is something that can be done without them needing additional training or software.
"I do think there needs to be more emphasis on technology. Once you teach children the basics, they have no fear of technology. Programming varies more as it is methodical, so for some it takes a bit longer. With our workshops they always end up with an end product - a video game to play, or an animation created."
Ms Cooper is keen to take Scratch forward and is hoping to arrange another workshop, so that the children can move on to the next stage.
"We have not done anything like this before, and now we have the software we can take it forward. Another workshop would be good and I may have to spend some time at the weekend finding out more about Scratch. They are asking things I don't know the answer to."
BACK TO PROGRAMMING'S FIRST PRINCIPLES
In March, Peter Twining, director of Vital Professional Development at the Open University, argued that instead of teaching Java or C++ and other languages which date easily, schools and universities should be teaching the fundamental principles of programming and data structure so that young people can move from one language to another.
There are reported to be 100,000 IT job vacancies in the UK, despite there being 40,000 out-of-work IT employeesgraduates.
To download Scratch, go to: www.scratch.mit.edu
OTHER WORKSHOPS WITH COMPUTERXPLORER
Robotic and Engineering with Lego
Students use the latest Lego robotic technology to program creatures that move using motors, gears and wheels. They also learn how to program sensors to make the robot react to its surroundings and to program robot birds to chirp, crocodiles to snap and plane engines to rev.
Storytelling using stop-motion animation
Students collaborate to research and create a story, select and make characters and design and make sets. They develop problem-solving and decision-making skills, as well as getting the opportunity to work with multimedia to create their own story.