“Ms. Pacman,” “Super Mario” and “Tetris” aren’t the only reasons why excited children flock to the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment. Every Saturday, the museum holds a free scratch programming class as an educational resource for youth to learn basic coding.
Scratch is an instructional program created by a team at the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. By using the program, children easily create their own cartoons, animations and games while learning the language of code.
The students create movement for their cartoon characters, by moving digital blocks around on the screen, sort of like stacking Legos. To create a series of actions, the blocks snap together to form instructions for the digital cartoon. Every week, students between age 9 and high school age anxiously prepare for the lessons taught by their instructors. By the end of each class, students have completed a small animated project.
On Saturday, five students and two teachers gathered in a small room filled with tables and laptops in the downtown Oakland museum. The teachers tag-teamed between leading the class and having one-on-one sessions with students. As one teacher helped Penelope Lode, a first-time student, with the basics, the other four students worked on programming animated cats and moving rainbows. Two of the students, Lauren and Davey Choi, both age 10, competed to complete each task first.
Jeremy Sachs, who works at a video gaming and development company in San Francisco, regularly volunteers as an instructor for the Scratch class. He said he believes “it’s a way to regularly give back to the community of tech and game aficionados and the community of Oakland.”
He enjoys teaching Scratch because, in his opinion, it breaks the stigma that learning code is hard. “Teaching students how to code on a basic level used to be very standard in a lot of curriculum in the United States. In the last couple of decades, coding took on the connotation of being difficult and inaccessible to anyone due to their background and familiarity with computers,” he said. “Scratch was made from the ground up to be instructional. It provides students with the counter-argument, which is that these are not the factors that determine whether or not you program.”
To participate in the Scratch classes, no prior coding, math or science experience is needed. The program staff provide laptops for each student to use during the class.
After each class, the children are encouraged to play any of the games in the museum. This is a special privilege because the museum doesn’t open to the public until after the class ends in the afternoon. Children who participate in the classes can enjoy the museum games for free as an incentive for attending the class, while children who visit the museum after the classes have to pay a $10 fee.
Akin Irvin, age 12, has attended the classes frequently over the last few weeks. Irvin’s mother found the class and decided to sign her son up because she knew he enjoyed playing video games. Irvin now has a growing passion for learning the language of coding.
“I like developing the game and I like playing them,” he said. “I kind of got into it on the first day.”
Each week, Irvin learns a new skill within the Scratch classes. “We had a lot more code today, and this was the first time we were using the make blocks,” he said, referring to the Lego-style blocks the students were programming onscreen.
At the beginning of each class, students are encouraged to create usernames and passwords on the Scratch website. This allows the students access to their project from any computer and to show their parents and friends their work.
Volunteers are welcome to assist the Scratch classes. Sachs said he and other volunteer instructors enjoy watching children finally understanding a concept. Their wide-eyed enthusiasm, combined with a huge smile, is commonly known as the “Aha!” moment in the class.
“It’s nice to see the ‘Aha!’ moments when a student is struggling with something,” he said. “But then when the concept lands, and they realize that the results that they are seeing are tied to the nature of what they did, it is a very important step in their development as a programmer and as any kind of creatively-minded person.”