BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — At the Students First presentation at Birchwood Elementary School before the Board of Education meeting Tuesday, April 14, a whole roomful of adults watched as a little girl in a flowered dress and her animated cat completely showed them up.
Standing at a projector that magnified her iPad screen for everyone to see, Eve Bratten shyly described how she had used an app called Scratch Jr., developed by Tufts University and MIT, to practice her computer programming.
“I learned that you have to take a lot of time to get it to do what you want,” Eve said.
Of course, when you’re in first grade, “a long time” is a relative term.
“It took me, I think, three days,” she said.
After the presentation, several adults in the room laughed at their own ignorance to computer programming, as compared with the youngsters who presented their creations.
That sort of bewilderment toward coding and computer programming is exactly what the developers of Scratch Jr. are trying to change with their free iPad app, which can even be used by children who can’t yet read.
“Coding [or computer programming] is a new type of literacy,” the website reads. “Just as writing helps you organize your thinking and express your ideas, the same is true for coding.
“In the past, coding was seen as too difficult for most people,” it continues. “But we think coding should be for everyone, just like writing.”
And for kids at Birchwood Elementary, where the library media center holds 30 iPads, all loaded with educational apps like Scratch Jr., that will certainly be the case.
“It’s great for our pre-readers,” said Kate Kirkpatrick, the school’s media specialist.
Yes, that’s right: Kids who can’t read or write yet can create animations using a programming language of symbols. Kirkpatrick said even though it doesn’t include any letters, it is considered a language and gives children the foundation they need for other, more complex kinds of coding.
“They all play Minecraft and all these other things,” she said. “It’s a nice way to get some STEM into the curriculum.”
It also helps the kids realize what they can do with the iPads other than play games and, someday, use social media.
“It’s a great way to get the kids to feel success,” Kirkpatrick said.
Caitlin Benson, a first-grade teacher whose students participated in the April 14 presentation, said even though she helps the kids with the projects, she’s still amazed by what they can do.
“They know more than we do,” she said. “They don’t think they’re doing work.”
First-grader Brandon Merrill certainly didn’t seem to feel he was being dragged through some academic exercise as he showed off an animated astronaut that bounced around the screen.
“We’re learning about space,” he said. That’s why he picked an astronaut.
But when it came to animating his spaceman, it felt more like a game than a lesson.
“It’s not hard if you get focused on it,” Brandon said.