Nov. 14th, 2009

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Today we introduced some future Indian teachers to tools many US teachers don't even know about.  Logo, Scratch, and Alice are pedagogical programming languages - they're designed to teach kids how to program, and introduce them to computer science. These new tools are easy to use, and we're hoping they can use them here.  We presented them to Panchsil College of Education, in our hometown of Visnagar, Gujarat.

Logo is the age-old classic that draws geometric figures based on simple commands.  By putting the pen up and down, changing its color, and changing the direction, you can make Spirograph-style designs and drawings.  If you can trace (x,y) coordinates on graph paper, you can program Logo.  Michael taught the students a simple program of how to draw a simple square box. Then he rotated it 15 degrees, randomized the pen color, and did multiple iterations to make a pretty sunburst design.

He then moved on to Scratch. Scratch lets kids make 2-D graphical games and stories.  In Scratch, kids don't type code; they drag-and-drop colorful building blocks to create little scripts.  The basic unit is a "sprite" - an animated character that responds when you click on it or it bumps into something.  Michael built a Pong-style game right in front of them in five minutes.  He also showed them a little maze game he'd written, where a little cartoon mouse "accidentally" morphs into a flying hippo. That was a hit.  We found out later that Scratch has also been translated into Gujarati, so they can even use it in their native language.

Michael then blew their minds with Alice.  Alice is designed for 12-year-old girls to write their own 3-D videos and games. It's very fashionable right now in computer science education.  Alice was Randy Pautsch's project (the late Carnegie Mellon professor of "Last Lecture" fame). The popular computer game, "The Sims" even has plug-ins for Alice. 

Michael demonstrated the capabilities of Alice, together building a little farm scene with a field, barn, mooing cow, and flying bird. The students objected slightly to it being an "American"-style cartoon cow; he challenged them to make one with an Indian cow.  He then showed them one of the demos, a flight simulator program, to give them a taste of how powerful Alice can be.

They let me speak too.  I kept it short, five minutes.  I mainly reinforced Michael's points, that programming is an important life skill for kids, and starting early led to my current career in software. The podium was next to a big poster that said "Preparing Teachers for the I.T. Age."  I pointed to the poster and emphasized how these teachers really are creating the future of India. I also mentioned how my software company has several Indians who were lucky and learned how to program early, and now these future teachers can share those skills with their students.

After the workshop, we toured their beautiful campus.  Panchsil College of Education is a well-designed college.  It has lovely landscaping and the campus is immaculate--no trash or pollution.  It's also very new, only about six years old.  We also met a few of the faculty and talked with them briefly.  They were pretty shy, but nice.

The people were also incredibly friendly and welcoming.  For instance, our first sight was a beautiful welcome design on the floor, crafted of flower petals.  They welcomed us ritually and marked our foreheads with red coucomb (sp?) and draped us with heavy, fragrant garlands of sacred marigolds. They tied little red strings and folded papers to our wrists, as some kind of protection against evil spirits.  Then Dr. Neelu Ghosh gave the most wonderful, warm, welcoming introduction that Michael has received in India or the US.  We found out what the prayer is, that's at all these ceremonies. It's to the Hindu goddess Saraswati. goddess of education, music, knowledge and the arts.  At the end of the day, they presented us with a lovely souvenir of Saraswati, with the Teacher's College's name.  We're still deciding whether we'll end up displaying it in our house, or put it in Michael's office.

We hope we helped make programming more accessible to these students. Michael and I are excited about this college. If these teachers actually implement some of these tools, it could make a huge difference in preparing their students. Not to mention, it enables them to build their own educational computer programs.  Michael plans to collaborate with Dr. Ghosh on future pedagogical research. We'll both keep in touch with her and her family as friends, too.

A small side effect, I think I got hooked on Scratch.  It's so easy it's addictive. The sprites are reminiscent of my very first programming back in the old TI-99 days.  It really does encourage object-oriented thinking and event-driven programming. I went a little crazy and spent the rest of Saturday afternoon making an Indian version of a Frogger game.  The frog has to dodge the cows, not just cars, to cross the road.  If I can figure out a way to post it online I will.

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