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Celebrating 10 years of Scratch

Scratch Day @ MIT was one of more than 800 global events during May to celebrate the kids’ programming language and online community on its 10th anniversary.

Many of the children taking part in Scratch Day 2017 at the MIT Media Lab on May 6 were not even born when the Scratch programming language was released in 2007.

“It’s exceeded our expectations,” said MIT LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research Mitchel Resnick, head of the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten research group, which develops Scratch. “We’re really excited about the way Scratch has enabled kids around the world to experiment, explore, and express themselves with computational tools. As children create and share Scratch projects, they’re learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively — essential skills for everyone in today’s society.”

Scratch is a free programming tool for children aged 8-16 to create animations, games, music, and interactive stories. It’s also an online community where children can share their projects and collaborate with one another. Over the past decade, more than 18 million people have joined the Scratch online community, from every country in the world except on the continent of Antarctica. Scratchers have shared more than 22 million projects, with 30,000 new ones every day.

Each year in May, children, parents, and educators gather at Scratch Day events to meet in person and to celebrate Scratch and ScratchJr, a simplified version for children aged 5-7, released in 2014. This month, on the 10th anniversary of Scratch, there are more than 800 Scratch Day events in almost 70 countries, and the numbers continue to rise.

Scratch @ MIT

The May 6 event at the Media Lab drew 300 children, parents, and teachers from across the Boston area and beyond. When tickets were made available online last month, they sold out in just three hours.

The first to arrive was 16-year-old Jocelyn from Richmond, Virginia, whose Scratch username is CrazyNimbus. “Scratch was on our computers at school, and I discovered it just when I was looking for ways to learn how to code,” she said. Jocelyn started using the language offline when she was 11 and joined the online community the following year. “I originally signed up because I wanted to make a game, but then I found out how exciting and supportive the community was. I create all kinds of things — animations, stories, interactive games, whatever comes to mind. And the constructive feedback I get from other Scratchers inspires me to add more to my projects.”

“Jocelyn is essentially an ‘artsy’ kid,” said her father, Don Marencik. “But Scratch has helped her use her analytical side to learn computer science as a way to express her creative side.” Another benefit, Marencik said, is that gender, race, and other “labels” have no place in Scratch: “Everybody’s equal.” Jocelyn also runs Scratch camps, and last year she set up Got Tec Richmond to provide technology equipment to underserved students and teachers in the Richmond area.

“All of you have been part of how Scratch has changed over the past 10 years,” Scratch co-creator and Media Lab research scientist Natalie Rusk told the children as they sat on bean bags, laughing at pictures of how the Scratch Cat mascot has also evolved in that time. “Scratch really builds on the Logo programming language that came out of the work of Seymour Papert, who was a founding faculty member of the Media Lab,” Rusk explained. “The research has shown that the best way for kids to learn is by constructing something that's personally meaningful to them. It's by constructing something that you really start to think about your own ideas, and reflect on them. Kids try making something and see 'Does that work or not?' Then they fix it and get feedback from others. It's by creating something that they care about that motivates them to problem solve and learn.”

Learning by making

That philosophy of learning-by-making was evident at Scratch Day where children (and adults) could try out any number of 15 different hands-on activities. Among them: designing and printing edible computational cookies, exploring light patterns with Scratch, playing with a PBS KIDS version of ScratchJr, and creating musical monsters. Throughout the event, a big screen showed video cards that Scratchers created on the spot to celebrate Scratch’s 10th birthday.

Walter, a 9-year-old from Seattle, was particularly interested in the Share and Tell activity, where kids presented their projects and took feedback from the audience. Walter chose the username wers90 when he started on Scratch last September. “It’s just really fun. I do some animations but most of the time I love to create games. If I end up doing other things with coding when I get older, Scratch will probably still be my fun time.” He began to teach it to his 4-year-old sister Andrea last month, and she’s already created an animation with music she recorded. Their mother Jenn Lin, who works in coding, has also become involved, and together all three made a musical animation they called The Scratch Band project.

Eight-year-old Gabriel, from nearby Belmont, Massachusetts, goes by the username eyeball. As he experimented with the light play activity at Scratch Day, he explained how he was creating shadows and programming the lights to change color because “I’m the boss of it. You can do so much with Scratch.” His 7-year-old friend Cameron, a.k.a. kingcamster on Scratch, said his favorite thing is “when I come up with my own ideas to make up my own games.” Cameron and Gabriel said they enjoy being part of Scratch’s online community.

Saffiya from Cambridge agreed. The 11-year-old, whose username is 11bellasings, described it as a respectful space. “If another Scratcher changes my project without asking me, I get irritated, but that doesn’t happen much. Usually, they say ‘What about this?’ and they help me make changes. Then it’s more fun because it becomes a group project.” Other children said that mastering Scratch has helped them across all their school studies, in that it’s given them more confidence to dive into new subjects and ideas and to learn by doing and collaborating. Saffiya’s mother Asha Tall said what she likes about Scratch is that it teaches kids to “make, not just use, technology. They can actually build and alter something that they want. This is an easy way into coding.”

What’s next for Scratch?

There are 20 people working with Resnick and Rusk on the Scratch team, which is based at the Media Lab. Their work is backed by a range of companies, foundations, and individual donors. The Scratch Foundation, established in 2014, supports fundraising and dissemination of Scratch.

In 2013, the Scratch team released an updated version, called Scratch 2.0, which allowed users to create projects directly in their web browsers. The group is now working on the next generation of Scratch. “We’re planning to do lots more in the next 10 years,” Resnick told the Scratch Day crowd at the Media Lab. “And a lot of that will come from your ideas and suggestions.”

Scratch 3.0 is slated for release next year. It will make it easier for Scratchers to create projects on mobile devices, such as tablets and cellphones. Scratch product lead Kasia Chmielinski said that the team is rebuilding Scratch from the ground up. “We want to be on every platform. We want to be accessible in all places across the world, even where they have unreliable internet. And, we also want Scratch to connect with kids in terms of their interests, such as music, dance, space, anything they like. There should be pathways to connect all children to coding and making.”

Scratch 3.0 will also connect users with their external world — using Scratch as a universal platform for coding things in their lives, such as a LEGO construction kit, a music streaming service, a DIY project, or any physical item they use.

The overall and ongoing goal for Scratch, Chmielinski emphasized, “is to be where kids are — all kids in all places.”

Story originally published May 11, 2017 by MIT Media Lab for MIT News.