The dozens of children who flock to Smita Kolhatkar's lunchtime "Scratch Club" at Barron Park Elementary School create their own little worlds and, in the process, absorb early computer programming concepts, Kolhatkar said.
The former Oracle engineering manager, who switched careers to teaching seven years ago, launched Barron Park's Scratch Club this fall after having used the simple programming language called Scratch with fifth-grade students for the past three years.
Even with competition from a Zumba class offered in the school multi-purpose room, about 40 Barron Park third-, fourth- and fifth-graders forsook other choices — even the post-lunch playground — to play with Scratch.
After washing their hands and grabbing Macs from a laptop cart, the kids settled themselves in Kolhatkar's darkened portable classroom for 25 minutes of screen time, appearing thoroughly absorbed.
Developed at MIT, the Scratch programming language makes it easy for children to create interactive stories, animations, games, music and art.
A few students took up a special challenge Kolhatkar had posed to the whole club: try to create a game that will help first- and second-graders practice their addition and subtraction facts.
But most kids in the room Wednesday had ideas of their own.
A cluster of fourth-grade boys had built a screen that included a person, a vehicle and some cheese puffs that were crashing into one another.
A girl sitting alone toyed with Halloween figures, and a group of girls in the back of the room was trying to create a movie involving a girl in a jeep in the desert.
A boy drew a green and pink alien.
Two fourth-grade girls explained that they were writing a story called "The Amazing Life of Bob the Pony" and said they'd add pictures later.
With Scratch, kids can choose characters from a pre-made list or draw characters of their own.
"Each one works at their own pace, so it's an automatic differentiator," Kolhatkar said.
Because Scratch has a graphical interface, kids don't have to do the mundane programming that real programmers do in terms of text, but it introduces them to logical sequencing and planned commands, she said.
"There are pre-made commands they can decide: 'Do I want (the character) to say something with a voice or just a speech bubble? Do I want it to move, bounce, hit the wall and come back?'"
Kolhatkar, who taught fifth grade at Walter Hays Elementary School before becoming a "technology teacher on special assignment" at Barron Park this fall, discovered Scratch at an educators' conference three years ago.
After finding it popular with her fifth-graders for the past three years, she started the Monday-and-Wednesday lunchtime club this fall.
"Originally I thought I'd start it with fourth- and fifth-graders, but the third-graders have been extremely enthusiastic as well," she said.
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