CREATIVE LEARNING

Basic coding language for kids boost to STEM

Block-based programming language Scratch nurtures the skill in them

In Summary

• Coding is basically giving a computer instructions. It can be broken down into two

• Text-based programming languages like CSS, Java and Python, and block-based programming languages like Scratch, Scratch Jr and Snap.

STEM educators create a project together on Scratch during the Scratch Conference in Nairobi
STEM educators create a project together on Scratch during the Scratch Conference in Nairobi
Image: MELINDA KIRWA

In April last year, former President Uhuru Kenyatta presided over the nationwide rollout of the coding curriculum in primary and secondary schools.

This made Kenya the first African state to make it an official syllabus to be taught in schools.

According to different STEM enablers, the country set the pace for a new ICT agenda in African policymaking that could boost computer programming across the continent.

The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development approved coding as a critical skill within the new Competency-Based Curriculum.

Last month, speaking during the Jamhuri Tech and Innovation Summit, President William Ruto said coding will be part of the school curriculum going forward.

The President said teaching learners problem-solving skills early through coding makes them better prepared for the world.

He also said the learners will be empowered and given tools to express themselves.

“We need to know how to grow our technology from primary school. You have heard about coding that is now going to be part of our curriculum to ensure technology becomes part of our journey from primary school all the way to university,” Ruto said.

The Scratch foundation recently hosted a workshop for STEM educators to train them on the key objectives of Scratch.

These include creative learning spiral, Scratch guiding principles as well as exploring the Scratch education collaborative.

The training was also attended by some teachers who have been facilitating CBC coding classes, Ministry of Education officials as well as officials from the KICD.

It was geared towards empowering the trainers and building their capacity in the effective delivery of coding as a curriculum.

Stephen Mwanduka, a STEM educator at STEM Impact Centre, says promoting coding in schools exposes young learners to technology and creates a path to a new world of innovation and creativity.

“Coding is really key in the CBC curriculum and in the world we live in today. We are now looking at virtual reality, machine learning and even artificial intelligence,” Mwanduka said.

“The world is moving away from computers to automation, engineering and robotics. People want to automate systems without having to be there.”

It is imperative for our children to know how to be creative in a world that is now going fully digital
Stephen Mwanduka

CODING IN CBC

Coding is basically giving a computer instructions. It can be broken down into two.

Text-based programming languages like CSS, Java and Python, and block-based programming languages like Scratch, Scratch Jr and Snap.

Martha Mutisya from KICD said coding is profitable to learners.

“What we have in Grade 4 under Science and Technology are coding basics, just the introduction part in Grade 5, and then it is discontinued in Grade 6 and then in Grade 7 it is brought back under Computer Science,” she said.

Mwanduka said CBC is playful learning and with it, a learner is never wasted.

He said learners start to identify their talents and areas they want to pursue from a very young age.

“I like the fact that CBC is graduating step-wise. Students don’t feel pushed to score marks in chemistry or physics to become musicians, for example,” Mwanduka said.

“Those who are still in STEM will go ahead and pursue their desired courses. With CBC, people will have a mind shift from depending on employment and start creating their own jobs.”

He said children need to learn how to generate income and be impactful.

Mwanduka also said he trains Grade 5 learners at Oshwal Academy 3D printing, who in turn have started creating name-tags and selling them.

“Our youth today have a lot of energy and creativity that remains untapped,” he said.

“The society we live in today does not care if you have someone to depend on, like a parent, or not. It is imperative for our children to know how to be creative in a world that is now going fully digital.”

Under the CBC curriculum and with coding becoming an essential part of learning in schools, Mwanduka also said kids learn through play, hence it becomes very difficult for them to forget.

A page from the Grade 5 Super Minds Science and Technology learner's book displays Scratch content
A page from the Grade 5 Super Minds Science and Technology learner's book displays Scratch content
Image: MELINDA KIRWA

SCRATCH CODING

Scratch is the first block-based programming language that was created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and released in 2007.

Now in version 3.0, Scratch is a free programming tool for children aged 8-16 that enables them to create animations, games, music and interactive stories.

It’s also an online community where children can share their projects and collaborate with one another.

According to MIT, over the past decade, 35 million kids in over 150 countries around the world have used Scratch to create their own animations, games and other interactive projects, while learning the basics of coding.

Scratch also exists in Scratch Junior app version, meant for children aged five to seven, that can be downloaded and used offline.

Coding on SCRATCH is basically dragging and dropping blocks.

The platform allows you to see the exact code that was used when creating a project.

Different blocks do different things.

These blocks include different characters that are referred to as sprites, different looks, sounds, motions, events, variables and even sensors.

Creative learning director at the Scratch foundation Francisco Cervantes said young people learn best when they create projects that are based on their interests.

He said Scratch is a creative learning tool in coding that is very experimental.

“The Scratch coding programming experience allows young people to build on their passions and interests as they get a chance to learn new things about themselves and the world,” Francisco said.

Francisco and his team provide creative online learning opportunities through online engagement, and through participatory engagements like the Scratch conference and training.

“Scratch provides one of the lowest floors for getting started in coding,” he said.

It has white walls that enable one to make games, animation and even art projects.

Cervantes said some scratchers have built their own operating systems on the platform.

Some of them include projects as complex and complicated as the Super Mario game.

"Scratch is foundational in learning about coding. We have seen some Scratchers who are professional game developers,” Cervantes added.

“It is also a fun online environment that allows one to share their cool creations with others on the online community, who can give feedback even without having to know each other.”

Scratch Education Collaborative director at the Scratch foundation, Elaine Atherton said they have moderators and online community specialists who monitor the online community and how children create and interact on the platform.

“Children are allowed to have their own perspective of things. Through Scratch, they can tinker and explore,” she said.

There are a lot of programming languages, he said, but Scratch offers foundational developers the chance to be creative, live as a community and connect.

These communities create different studios and share their work with the aim of reaching a larger audience.

“When you build your project on Scratch, it enforces early literacy concepts, cognitive behaviours and skills,” Cervantes said.

“It builds on computational literacy, such as digital skills, and computing fluency and practices like sharing and remixing.”

He also said the world is becoming digital and requires people to be not only consumers but also contributors.

To Cervantes, Scratch is a safe platform that allows one to learn about safe computing and the digital world.

“Tools can be safe, dangerous, boring, fun, good or bad. Our learning philosophy is creative learning and we want young people o get educated by making things they want to see,” he said.

Atherton said they are keen not to give step-by-step tutorials despite having how-to videos and tutorials that show how the platform can be used.

“You do not need to know everything so that you can use Scratch. The platform encourages day-to-day learning,” she said.

The platform is not only limited to children but can be utilised by anyone as the basis for learning basic coding in a creative, interactive way.

Cervantes said one can benefit from Scratch by learning computing concepts like loops, conditionals, operators and variables.

One is free to practice and experiment as well as reuse and remix other Scratchers’ projects.

“There is testing and debugging, crediting work done, abstracting, and even connecting different scratchers,” Cervantes said.

Atherton said learning today does not only involve reading but also involves learning about how computers work, signing digital agreements and building and even downloading apps.

The Scratch team is working on making the platform more diverse and accessible to children who are abled differently as it is big on inclusive learning.

Martha said the platform has been positively received by a number of teachers.

“Based on different teachers’ approaches, Scratch is user-friendly,” she said.

Mwanduka said he enjoys using Scratch as it is very easy for a beginner to utilise and learn with.

STEM educator Stephen Mwanduka facilitates a coding class at Kinakoni Primary School in Mutomo, Kitui county
STEM educator Stephen Mwanduka facilitates a coding class at Kinakoni Primary School in Mutomo, Kitui county
Image: COURTESY

PRACTICAL IMPACT

According to Mwanduka, coding does not require the application of a lot of mathematics principles.

It requires learning and understanding the basics.

“Technology is all about programming, and this is where coding starts,” Mwanduka said.

“If you teach children coding at the foundational level, it becomes easy for them to understand and advance.”

He also said that if you take a learner to university and teach them about C+ and C++, they can fully understand if they learnt about Scratch from a tender age.

“Asking university students about coding variables and yet they have never heard of such a term is problematic. Teaching them coding and yet they have never learnt about Arduino is going to be very difficult,” Mwanduka said.

He also said that with Scratch, there are a lot of variables and a lot of coding basics and concepts that one can see and introduce the learner to

“If I give a student a [graphing] calculator to make a programme, the learner has to make use of variables and it is very easy for them to transition to Arduino,” Mwanduka said.

Currently, Mwanduka trains 134 teachers from different parts of the country on Arduino and Scratch via a WhatsApp group.

He said the teachers were brought together and he ended up connecting with them.

“I normally send them work via the group. I give step-by-step instructions, which they can engage in during their free time and they, in turn, give feedback,” he said.

“I usually have two sessions; one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. I have noticed that if they encounter a problem, some of them even side chat and ask where they have gone wrong so they can be helped.”

Mwanduka also said it is impossible to tell someone to innovate and still limit them.

“Just like CBC, Scratch has the interest of the learner at heart,” he said.

“If we have people from the abled differently community come up with innovations that help bridge their interaction with the immediate environment, this creates jobs for them and others within the society,” he said.

He said our world today is moving away from the job-seeking mindset to the job-creation mindset.

“We have Grade 4 and 5 learners who can solve things that we are unable to see. There is a team of learners the age of 11 and 12 who I teach Arduino and are making smart irrigation systems by themselves,” Mwanduka said.

Apart from the training, Mwanduka also said they teach learners to patent their ideas so the ideas don’t go to waste or get stolen easily.

However, he said the government is yet to do enough when it comes to supporting the youth innovation culture.

“I have only seen NGOs gain interest in what some of these innovations have to offer. At times they attend these innovation forums and you will hear them saying, ‘I like this.’ Okay, what happens next to the creator?” Mwanduka said.

“They lose morale and they decide to sell the idea. That is a loss to the country. We end up struggling because we sell our ideas, they are advanced outside and we are left buying our sold ideas at higher prices and we would have developed them ourselves to help us in future.”

Mwanduka recommended that the government develop a way of absorbing youths coming up with different innovations into different sectors.

“They can even subsidise patent costs, build on mentorship for learners, maximise on seed funding as well as benchmark with other countries,” he said.

He added that Kenya is capable of such and more.

Scratch foundation team together with a team from the STEM Impact Centre during the Scratch foundation conference
Scratch foundation team together with a team from the STEM Impact Centre during the Scratch foundation conference
Image: MELINDA KIRWA
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