Category Archives: programming

Confronting the Digital Divide One Kid A Time

I like on the edge of a small, impoverished, underserved town* in a county southeast of Richmond. During a Halloween “trunk and treat” event at the local library, I met the local 4H coordinator for the county who came over to check out my Makey Makey screaming pumpkins and talking hat. I followed up because I have been looking for a way to connect with the kids in my town. It turns out that 4H has a coding curriculum that we could use as the basis for a SPIN (Special Interest) club, a short term group around a specific topic. I agreed to facilitate six sessions around STEM to be held at the town’s community center, which is housed in the former elementary school in the heart of some of the worst poverty.

While the 4H curriculum is good and provides “unplugged” activities that don’t require Internet and computer access, we are fortunate to have decent Internet access, my collection of Makey Makey, and a few laptops including a couple that I bring with me. I ended up creating my own curriculum to take advantage of that access.

During the first week, we experimented with circuits using copper tape and playdoh with batteries and leds. On Tuesday of this week, we spent our hour connecting the Makey Makey to Scratch and making simple switches. One of the five participants had experience with the Makey Makey. The others caught on quickly.

Today was the big day, at least in my mind, as I knew I only had an hour to get them hooked on Scratch. So, we dove in and made a simple game using Barb Ericson’s tutorial.  I had three incredibly motivated students who had zero experience with coding and Scratch. but were eager to make their game.

They played my sample game when they arrived so they had an idea of what they would be creating. We worked through each step, and they were also able to customize their games by choosing their own sprites and backdrops. We still have some work to do but you can see their games here:

One of the boys, the same one who had worked with the Makey Makey, was able to move forward more independently by following the slides in the printed packet so I could work closely with the other two who needed more direct support. By the end of an hour, all three had working games that kept score. Whew!

I’m worried that they didn’t really have to time to process what we were doing, and I want to take time next Tuesday to review the various pieces that we put together. We will make the games harder and add some sounds, I think.

I would *love* to integrate the Makey Makey by having them create game controllers with switches during the last meeting. I think the town mayor may be stopping by. She helped me connect with the community center director so I invited her to stop by to see what is happening.

This is a small, small step. Three boys who are living in the digital divide and deserve the same access and opportunities of other kids. If there is interest, I am committed to continuing our meetings to explore Scratch and other kinds of programming. At the least, I want to hold a Valentine’s Day Card workshop using this great template from**

*Use whatever adjective you like: our grocery store closed several years ago so our food sources include fast food, one or two restaurants, and a couple dollar type stores. No local access to fresh food including vegetables and meat. The closest full-service store is 8 miles away. It’s a long way for people who also don’t have access to their own or public transportation.

**The wonderful woman who serves as the on site director for the center came to me today asking about how she might add lights to flowers to Valentine’s Day.  I told her I would bring my kit of lights and batteries next week and we could figure out how to make it work!

What I Did When My Meeting Got Cancelled

Yesterday was meeting day…a stack of three starting late afternoon and running until probably past my bed time. It’s fine: it happens that way sometimes, especially at the beginning of the school year when all those hats I wear seem to be in the air at the same time. I’m taking them off and putting them on and every so often wearing more than one.

But, yesterday, the first meeting was cancelled. Since I had planned around it, I found myself with free time! Unscheduled, unstructured and quiet in the office. And the night before, I had hooked up the Raspeberry Pi again, determined to continue on with my Python/Minecraft studies.

Lava FlowAs a reminder, since it’s been awhile since I’ve posted, I’m using Craig Richardson’s book Learn to Program with Minecraft. Summer distractions had kept me from digging in, so last night I mostly just reviewed the early stuff and today, I headed into Chapter 3: Building Quickly and Traveling Far with Math. It’s been fun experimenting with placing blocks using code. I managed to create two lava flows before I realized I forgot the minus sign in front of the y coordinate for the lava block.

Here’s what I was supposed to do:

Lava Traip

I also figured out how to manipulate the blocks to make what I’m calling a Rainbox rather than bow mostly because that’s the name that was created when I pressed the x instead of the w in saving.

Rain Box







Yesterday’s other challenge was two fold: learn how to take screen shots on the Pi and transferring those photos to my computer.

This site was one stop shopping for the screenshots information with nicely detailed but easy to follow directions and helpful links. They mentioned SSH or USB for transferring the photos and I decided to go with SSH.

Trevor Appleton led me through installing and setting up FileZilla to take advantage of SSH for transferring the photos.

Having fun learning and then riffing on that learning through the extra challenges. My swimming pool attempts led to a couple waterfalls!

Scratching Away

After a very full June with lots of events and a trip to the ISTE conference in Denver, I am basically home for the rest of the summer with just one vacation week planned. There is plenty to do: gardening, bike riding, pool floating top the list of R&R activities.

But, I also want to be able to spend time on my own areas of interest and that includes coding. I’ve been dabbling in Python on the Pi and for the last two days, getting into Scratch using a couple books I found on Amazon, both from DK publishers. The Coding With Scratch Workbook is short and features four games that use what I would consider advanced features. I made them and in several cases did some remixing of the code provided. I’m now working through Coding Games in Scratch. It takes a similar visual approach and includes a “hacks and tweaks” section in each chapter with ideas for going further. I’m also thinking that I might try to write the code from the description of the game and then dive into the chapter when I get stuck.

There is also a whole community of Scratch educators out there at the ScratchED site from Harvard. Twitter led me to the Creative Computing Guide that Dylan Ryder has remixed. I’m looking forward to spending some time with the old and new guide.

If you’re looking for inspiration, here’s my Scratch studio.

Applying Critical Thinking Across Disciplines

After patiently waiting for RetroPie to install and worrying about issues, I read the rest of the documentation including this sentence, “Now, you have to copy your rom files into the ROMs directory.” At first glance, I figured it meant the files had to be moved from one place on the Pi to another. Turns out these are ROM files that come with the various games and legally you are supposed to own the games in order to use the emulator.  Well, I don’t own any games–never bought a game console–so legally I can’t use RetroPie.

As I realized what had happened, I was reminded of one of the fundamental rules of cooking: read the WHOLE recipe first so you aren’t surprised when you are making something for dinner in an hour only to discover the whole casserole needs to sit overnight in the fridge. That’s a little how I felt last night.

Fortunately, there was an uninstall option but it did leave a few orphan applications behind and I’m thinking it may be time to do a clean install of Raspbian (after a backup, of course!)

Turns out all those cooking lessons can apply to programming!

Patience is…

waiting for RetroPie to install on my Raspberry Pi. It turns the Pi into a gaming machine and was a suggestion in the Raspberry Pi Projects community at reddit. I wanted a break from Python and I haven’t experimented with installing anything on my Pi.

It’s been working away for awhile and I’ve seen what appear to be error messages so I’m wondering if my Pi will even work after this over.

But if it doesn’t, I’ll get to practice installing a new OS, right?

It’s all about the learning.