Two years ago, computer software engineers at The Media Lab, MIT's innovative technology research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, launched a new and easy-to-use programming language they called Scratch. Since its launch, Scratch has quickly found its way over the Internet into classrooms and homes around the world, putting the creative power of software design into the hands of everyday users, young and old.
Learning with Scratch
Most of Jeff Elkner's students are learning English as a second language. Creating animated stories with Scratch helps them practice their vocabulary words.
Elkner, who teaches at a secondary school in Arlington, Virginia, introduced Scratch to his students in March. Initially, he just wanted them to learn computer skills: "sequencing, programming, looping, those kinds of things," Elkner says. "What we found when we were working with Scratch was that it was actually amazingly good at teaching language skills."
That doesn't surprise Karen Brennan, a Scratch project leader at MIT's Media Lab, where Scratch was developed. "Our agenda isn't to create armies of programmers," Brennan says. The idea, she says, is to empower people, especially young people, to create their own media. As they do so, they develop learning skills, think creatively and work together.
How Scratch works
Scratch is an object-oriented language designed to be simple enough for anyone to use. Instead of writing commands out, users select commands that come with the program.
"We were really inspired by Lego bricks and how you build things in the physical world," Brennan says. Scratch has more than 100 command blocks to choose from. There is also a library of visual elements included in the program: characters, interior and exterior settings to put them in, and objects they can manipulate. And there are sounds. Basically, Scratch has everything you need to get started, but you can also import your own media into the program.
Elkner says using Scratch is like producing a play. "The metaphor of Scratch is the stage. That's where the action takes place, and what you do in a Scratch program is you create scenes and populate them with characters and you have them do things."
Anyone can download Scratch for free from the MIT-sponsored Website at scratch.mit. edu.
A variety of projects
Brennan says she and her Media Lab colleagues weren't sure how Scratch would be received when the site first went online in May 2007, but within two weeks a 9-year-old girl posted a multi-level game with a bee as the hero.
"The bee has the task of rescuing the grasshopper, who has been imprisoned by the evil spider," Brennan says. The girl drew the bee, used pictures from her family's garden as the settings, and put pictures of her siblings and their voices in story.
Brennan says they knew from the start that they wanted Scratch to be easy to use, but they didn't want its simple interface to limit how it was used. "You should be able to build complicated things and you should be able to create a wide variety of things."
Everyone who uses Scratch is encouraged to share their projects. "If someone else sees it, and is interested in it, they can download it and look at how it was made," Brennan says.
Changing, adapting and re-mixing projects is also encouraged. There have even been some collaborations; a game called "Night at Dreary Castle" was the creation of an 8 year old, a 13 year old, and a 15 year old from different countries.
Other Scratch users have created virtual museums, where you can learn about works of art; interactive maps to teach geography; tutorials on how to use Scratch; and, of course, lots of animation. More than 400,000 projects have been posted on the Website in the past two years.
Today, there are more than one quarter of a million registered Scratch users worldwide.