Category Archives: Computer Science

Hack Your Window with Scratch

Scratch programming is one of the most versatile tools for creativity that my students have ever used.  I am constantly in awe of the ideas people come up with using this free coding platform that is available to anyone online.  One of the most recent suggestions that is perfect for those of us going a bit stir crazy during the quarantine is to “hack your window.”  Basically, you take a picture of any of the windows in your residence, use the Scratch drawing tools to delete the panes, and add what you would like to imagine seeing outside your window.  This post from Eduard Perich gives specific instructions for creating an animated scene.

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image from “Futbol Per La Finestra” by UrielMR8 on Scratch

If you are not familiar with Scratch, or would like to start by just seeing what others have done along this theme, here is a link to the Scratch studio where creators are sharing their programs.  You will notice that there are submissions in many different languages, which could be fun for translation lessons!

Knowing many of my former students, they would probably enjoy the entry, “Don’t Let the Corona Get In,” which I’ve embedded below.  It’s a game where you have to try to click the images of the coronavirus before they get too large and overcome you.

One way to help students learn quickly in Scratch is to allow them to copy a program and remix it.  You can do this by clicking on any shared program, choosing, “See Inside,” and then making a copy.  You will need to be logged in to Scratch in order to do this.

There are many, many resources out there for getting started with Scratch.  This is one of the basic ones, but keep in mind that the platform has been updated since then so some of the screen shots may look different than the current version.  You can also do a search of this blog for ideas to use with Scratch and/or Scratch Jr.

Bot or Not?

Since tomorrow is “Super Tuesday”, secondary teachers may want to take advantage of the resource from PBS Learning Media called, “Bot or Not? How Fake Social Media Accounts Could Influence Voting.”  This lesson plan includes a link to a 6-minute PBS News Hour video that explains how bots have been used in the past in social media – from making someone appear more popular to generating fake accounts that spread particular political agendas.  Students are directed to a website that will analyze Twitter accounts to determine the likeliness of whether or not a user and/or their followers are bots. (I checked my own account, and discovered that I score a 0.3 out of 5 in bot-potential.)  For their final project, students research issues that are meaningful to them, and invent their own “helper bot” to advocate for their selected issues.

The majority of your students are probably not current voter, but they most likely use social media.  They may find it eye-opening to see how easy it is to purchase followers to mislead people about your popularity, and the extent to which bots are being used for propaganda.  As Artificial Intelligence becomes more ubiquitous, it will become harder and harder to distinguish between real and fake accounts.  If nothing else, this lesson will hopefully inspire your students to approach social media with a dose of cynicism.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Turtlestitch

One of the many things I didn’t know anything about when I first started teaching at Advanced Learning Academy was working with textiles.  My skills were limited to hand-sewing buttons.  Even though my in-laws had given me a sewing machine a decade ago, I still didn’t know how to thread it or why in the world I needed a bobbin.

I had seen the Turtlestitch Kickstarter page, and was intrigued by the idea of using coding to design for textiles, specifically for embroidery machines.  My colleague and I decided to order a combo sewing/embroidery machine (Brother SE600) for Zorro Astuto, and it arrived about a month before I retired.  I took it home for the Thanksgiving Break to try it out and, with the help of a lot of YouTube videos, figured out how to use the machine.  Although I was by no means an expert, I begged my family to buy me one for Christmas.  I knew I would suffer from fabrication withdrawal once I was no longer teaching in Zorro Astuto, and the Brother SE600 seemed far more practical than adding a 3d printer or laser cutter to my personal collection – though I’m certainly not ruling those out for the future 😉

I’ve made a lot of mistakes with this machine, which makes sense since I knew zero about it when I started.  For example, I didn’t know that you need to put a stabilizer behind your fabric (sometimes even on top of it, depending on the fabric), and that there are many, many different types of stabilizers.  The type of fabric, or other medium, and the types of stitches will determine your stabilizer and needle types.  This blog post was really helpful.  I have also learned quite a bit about how to service my machine as pieces of thread and fabric have gotten caught inside when I didn’t stabilize correctly or a needle broke.

You can download embroidery designs, but most of them will cost you money.  Finding just the right software for creating your own designs can be overwhelming.  That’s why Turtlestitch is such a genius idea.  Using block coding, you can create your own design and export it to a USB – for free.

To start, I decided to choose from one of the many free designs already available on the Turtlestitch site.  The project is called, “Twisty.”  Because I wanted my design to be in different colors, I decided to remix the original by randomizing the RGB colors.  Each time I run the code, the colors will come out different.  However, once I like the colors, I can export the file as a .dst, and those colors will be the set used for the embroidery file. The machine lists each corresponding Brother Thread color number as it is needed, and I was fortunate in this case, as almost every single thread color was part of my original package of threads.turtlestitchtwisty

My machine will stop for each color change, which turned out to be a bit demanding on this project, but I’m thankful for the automatic needle threader!

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Turtlestitch “Twisty” remixed, stitched on felt, using tear-away stabilizer on bottom

I love using coding with math, and there are lots of possibilities here.  There are a few fractals projects already on the site, as well as tessellations.  If you follow the @turtlestitch Twitter account, you will see examples of student projects, including jewelry (my next personal challenge).

#TCEA2019 – Machine Learning for Kids

I learned quite a bit about Artificial Intelligence at a TCEA session this year presented by Anita Johnson of Austin ISD.  She explained the difference between Expert Systems (where explicit rules are programmed – think “If…Then” statements) and Machine Learning (where the computer identifies and learns from patterns).    Johnson teaches middle school, and introduced us to a site called, “Machine Learning for Kids,”  which she uses with her students. In the “Worksheets” section, you can find many lessons, categorized by difficulty level, that can be done using Scratch, such as creating a character that smiles if you say nice things and cries if you are mean.

I haven’t had a chance to try this with my students, yet.  It looks like you have an option to create a managed class account or “Try it Now”, but check out this page for details on the pros and cons of each choice.

You can also read this blog post to get more information on how to introduce Machine Learning to kids, and why we should even want to educate them about this technology.artificial-neural-network-3501528_1920.png

Cartoon Network Projects for Playground Express

If you read last year’s “Gifts for the Gifted” posts, then you may remember that one of my suggestions was Circuit Playground Express.  After publishing the post, I found out that there was an e-book published by Rob Merrill with some fun ideas for different ways to use this product, which is an awesome introduction to development boards.  I added the update to that post, but I found out this week that the Cartoon Network has developed seven new projects to try out with the Circuit Playground Express.  Whether you have a child who received one of these as a gift or you are a teacher who wants to offer more options for ways to learn how to use this product, these tutorials might appeal to you.  In addition, there is a link to a Flipgrid where students can share their own versions of each project.

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Circuit Playground Express shared by Adafruit on Flickr

Gifts for the Gifted – Circuit Playground Express

 A few years ago, I thought I would help out the parents of my gifted and talented students by writing about some games, toys, or books that I thought might make good purchases during the holiday season.  I called the series of posts, “Gifts for the Gifted,” and I have continued to do it annually on every Friday in November and December.  These gifts are suggestions for any child – not just those who qualify for a GT program. Sometimes I receive a free product for review, but I am not paid for these posts, and I never recommend a product that I wouldn’t buy for my own child.  For past “Gifts for the Gifted” posts, you can visit this page.

This year, I have decided to do my annual “Gifts for the Gifted” posts all in one week.  This should give anyone who likes to shop ahead of time a good start!  For this year’s suggestions so far, click here.

If you know a child interested in programming who is not quite ready for Raspberry Pi or Arduino, the Circuit Playground Express might be just the right gift.  Adafruit upgraded its original Circuit Playground, which could only be coded with the Arduino IDE, to make a much more versatile development board.  Plug this little guy into a USB port on any computer, and you can immediately use Microsoft’s Make Code website to program Circuit Playground Express with block coding or Javascript.  In fact, the website makes it easy for new programmers to switch back and forth between the two coding options.  Eager learners can then move on to the Circuit Python and the Arduino IDE.

The Make Code site allows users to simulate what will happen on the physical Circuit Playground Express.  Once satisfied, creators can download the program to the Circuit Playground, and remove it.  The Base Kit is a good buy, as it includes a battery pack with batteries, USB cord, and a container.   This makes the Circuit Playground Express a portable electronic device that doesn’t need soldering, breadboarding, or any kind of advanced electrical knowledge.

With lights, music, and multiple inputs, the Circuit Playground Express would be the next step up the ladder from the Makey Makey.   Suggested “makeable” products are listed on the Adafruit product pages for the Express, as well as on the Make Code website.  Because of it’s size and portability, the Circuit Playground Express also makes it a fun choice for wearable inventions.

UPDATE 12/3/18: Rob Merrill has published an e-book course for Circuit Playground Express with great ideas here.

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Circuit Playground Express

(It should be noted that several other beginner products can be programmed on Make Code – most notably the Microbit, which is used extensively in the UK.  I have not used it, so I can’t review it, but it has extensive coverage online with multiple projects and tutorials.)

Gifts for the Gifted 2018 – Turing Tumble

A few years ago, I thought I would help out the parents of my gifted and talented students by writing about some games, toys, or books that I thought might make good purchases during the holiday season.  I called the series of posts, “Gifts for the Gifted,” and I have continued to do it annually on every Friday in November and December.  These gifts are suggestions for any child – not just those who qualify for a GT program. Sometimes I receive a free product for review, but I am not paid for these posts, and I never recommend a product that I wouldn’t buy for my own child.  For past “Gifts for the Gifted” posts, you can visit this page.

This year, I have decided to do my annual “Gifts for the Gifted” posts all in one week.  This should give anyone who likes to shop ahead of time a good start!  For yesterday’s suggestion, click here.

While yesterday’s gift suggestion could conceivably be used with anyone over 4 years old – and with groups of 2 to whatever – today’s game is a bit more limited.  Turing Tumble is a game I originally backed on Kickstarter, and was excited to finally receive this past summer.  You definitely don’t want to buy it for any child who is still in the “I-see-it-so-I-can-eat-it” phase due to the many small parts.  It’s also not very practical to use with large groups.  You can read my full review here. (It appears that it is currently unavailable on Amazon, but the Turing Tumble website has it in stock.)

So, who should receive Turing Tumble for a gift?  Children and adults who are interested in machines and logical challenges would be the most likely to enjoy Turing Tumble.  I personally think that it is best played with a few family members taking turns with the challenges.  My experience with similar games that could potentially be played alone is that children often give up too quickly.  They need adults to model the perseverance and problem-solving needed – and to cheer them on when they succeed.  Quite frankly, it’s kind of fun for the adults to get some encouragement, too 😉

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image of Paul and Alyssa Boswell with their invention, from Turing Tumble Press Kit