Scratch – across the curriculum

Jun 30, 2012

Miles Berry

Despite the Coalition’s rejections of Sir Jim Rose’s proposals for the primary curriculum, an embedded approach to ICT still wins much support. Indeed there’s much to said for taking the ideas of computational thinking beyond the ICT curriculum and applying them in all areas of learning. It’s perhaps with this in view that Ian Addison invited me to suggest a few ideas for his new Rising Stars book, ICT Essentials, on how the wonderful Scratch toolkit might be used in other areas of the curriculum. Here’s what I came up with…

  • Turtle graphics (maths). Scratch supports most of the Logo commands for Turtle Graphics and so lends itself to exploring geometry ideas – you can start with drawing squares and triangles, generalise to any polygon using variables and then combine these in increasingly complex snowflake or crystal flower patterns.
  • Islamic art (maths, art, RE). The geometric patterns of Islamic art can also be explored using the Turtle Graphics commands in Scratch, moving the sprite around the stage to draw one or more shape in each position on a grid. This can be a good way to introduce coordinates in four quadrants. Scratch lets you change the pen colour and thickness as you go.
  • Arithmetic games (maths). It’s easy enough to code up a simple drill and practice arithmetic game in Scratch, using random numbers to ask, eg, multiplication questions. The game can be made more interesting by using variables to make the questions harder as the score increases, and more appealing by having sprites move on the stage depending on whether answers are right or wrong (eg, climbing out of a well, escaping from a zombie).
  • Spelling games (English). Spelling games allow pupils to explore lists and recorded audio, with the computer picking at random from a list of audio recordings and then comparing the entered answer with one stored in the same position on an answers list. If the answers are right, both items can be removed from their lists. Why not get pupils to create spelling games for younger classes to use?
  • Simulating simple physics (science, maths). With some scaffolding, pupils could create a simple simulation of balls bouncing around a billiard table or even moving under gravity. With a little tweaking, the latter can be adapted to make a simple Angry Birds level.
  • Animating traditional tales, historical situations, Bible stories etc. (English, history, RE etc). Scratch lends itself to developing simple, scripted animations: pupils can take time creating sprites and backgrounds and then write the scripts to have them interact using pre-planned movement and dialogue. Pupils can use the say/think blocks for the latter or pupils can record their own audio.
  • Creating games using characters from class readers, history topics, etc (English, history, etc). Again, many pupils introduction to Scratch is through coding up simple computer games, based on familiar gameplay such as pong, mazes, duck shoot, chase games etc. Having pupils create their own backgrounds and sprites linked to topics from other curriculum areas allows some cross-curricular links to be developed.
  • Simulating probability experiments (maths). Scratch’s random number generator, sprite movement and multi-costume sprites allow pupils to easily simulate probability experiments. The use of variables and lists would allow some analysis and experiments can be made interactive using mouse or keyboard control.
  • Food chains (science). Simple two or three stage food chains can be modelled easily in Scratch, although duplicating Scripts for multiple sprites is easier in the BYOB variant. Simulations can be allowed to run automatically, with movement and other behaviours being controlled randomly by the computer, or with some interaction to create simple games.
  • Programming in another language (MFL). Unusually for a programming language, Scratch commands can be replaced by their equivalents in other languages by simply changing the language setting on the Globe icon, providing one way in for pupils to learn simple vocabulary and grammar by programming Scratch in their target language.
  • Interactive conversations (English, MFL). Scratch’s Ask, Think and Say blocks allow pupils to create scripted conversations in Scratch, either in English or in a MFL. The Answer variable can be used in Scratch’s response to a user’s input. Although Scratch currently lacks voice recognition or synthesis capabilities, pupils’ recorded audio can be played back.
  • Jigsaw puzzles (art, geography etc). Use an image editor to break a picture into a small number of parts (rectangles, jigsaw shape or continents on a map). These can then be imported as sprites into Scratch. They can be positioned randomly on screen and then moved back into position. Keeping track of when each piece has been solved can be done using position tests and a list of flags, each set as a sprite is correctly positioned.
  • Composing (music). An on screen piano, drum kit or other instrument can be created with each key/drum as its own sprite, playing an associated sound when clicked. Music can then be recorded into, and played back from a list variable.
  • 20 Questions (science, or other areas). Scratch’s If…Then…Else block allows simple or more complex branching databases to be constructed, allowing pupils to create their own ’20 Questions’ style ‘guess the animal’ games. Interaction is best accomplished by using the Key Pressed sensing block.
  • Image manipulation (art). Scratch can be used for simple image manipulation, with a number of image properties and filters available. These can be applied randomly, according to a predetermined script or under the user’s control. A disco simulation is easy, and the fisheye and whirl effects can be most amusing with portrait photographs of head teachers or secretaries of state.
  • Control technology (DT). Out of the box, Scratch is able to use Lego Wedo sensors and motors – simply choose Show Motor Blocks from the Edit menu. It can then be used to control and interact with simple Lego models, such as the ‘friendly ‘gator’ model from the Wedo pack. With a little experience, pupils would be able to create their own interactive models. More advanced control projects can be accomplished using the Scratch variants S4A with Arduino or Enchanting with Lego NXT Mindstorms.