My Odyssey in Teaching Kids Scratch: Part 2

This entry was written more than 2 years ago and the information may be out of date

For me, some of the coolest parts of being a coder is in the history of being one. In March, when I did my workshop for GEMS Academy and ran through women in history for the girls who took the class, I received the feedback after that one of the students said, "I never knew how many women coded in history. I feel like I need to look into it more now!" Maybe I'm just a softie (I am), but I'm not going to lie: It moved me to tears. Because when you're in school learning about history, they don't teach you much about the Ada Lovelaces, Grace Hoppers, or Margaret Hamiltons of the world. They don't tell you that Albert Einstein's first wife, Mileva Marić, was a brilliant scientist in her own right and likely came up with his theories right alongside him.

Sure, there are amazing, brilliant women that stand out in history for their daring to buck social molds and be more than a woman was deemed to be. And unless they're Joan of Arc, they're probably forgotten. But how do you teach kids - boys and girls - about the women history forgot while not making it just sound like an excited history teacher's textbook?

This is where my sister got the idea for escape rooms. Now, if you don't know what an escape room is, then I'll help. Basically, you pay someone to get locked in a room and solve some kind of setup with a bunch of friends/family for around an hour until you figure it out or they let you out. There are all kinds (or so I hear - I've never actually done one, but I want to!) from Hansel and Gretel to being stuck in haunted houses to (my favorite I've heard of) having your team split in two and one of you in mission control and the other in Apollo 13 and having to abort orbit of the moon to get successfully home. Badass, right?

"They're really in right now!" my sister was saying to me excitedly over the phone. "What if we had the kids go through time and have to figure out puzzles to return to their own time for each of our historical figures? Then they can learn facts and have fun!"

Sounded like a good idea to me! Of course, at the time, it hadn't really occurred to me how much work sixteen puzzles would be. If I'd actually done the math (4 x 4 is...?) then I might have done what I figure most teachers who have great ideas to break out of the mold do: "Yeesh, who has time to do all of that? Maybe we should stick to the textbook."

I'm glad I didn't! And I'm also really glad that I had my sister to help me put it all together, because she brainstormed, searched, cut, pasted, weighed, and organized 16 puzzles for 11 kids. And while I helped with it all, she was definitely the smarts and the hard work behind putting it altogether.

I'm not going to talk about each escape room in minute depth, but I do want to go over what we did for each of the days in a general sense because it was a lot of fun, and I think the kids really took away from it (well, barring the one who thought that everything difficult is 'stupid') that there were some really awesome people in history who paved the road for them to be sitting in that class for a week.

Using Imagination to Fuel Learning

Imagine: You are all sitting at your computers, programming happily away. You look down at your computer and see a huge mistake in your code you are writing. “Uh -oh,” you say out loud. You know the mistake must be huge because around you and all your classmates, the room starts whirling and twirling, making you feel dizzy. You fall over, and as your body heads towards the ground, everything goes dark…

This is how our escape room week started. A bug in the code causes some time travel (although as one of our very intellectual youth pointed out: "It's impossible to travel backwards in time!"), and we go through four days of trying to get back home, starting in Victorian England.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace wasn't a hard first pick, especially when you consider that she was born 64 years before the lightbulb was invented (!!!) and is considered the first programmer. Ada Lovelace is an inspiration for me, so we sent the kids to other (fictional and real) historical figures on a journey to find her - Sherlock Holmes, her father Lord Byron, and Charles Babbage - so she could use the Analytical Engine to try to send them back home. Along the way, they had to solve a puzzle provided by each character from word play, to riddles along a map, to figuring out how solve a cool puzzle involving hats (and some binary concepts).

Purpose: Beyond being an inspirational woman who was able to see the potential of code and computers, it's important to teach kids that the concepts for computers and programming existed before electricity even did. It helps reinforce that coding is based on creative thinking and problem solving, something we emphasized the entire week.

Grace Hopper

Unfortunately, the Analytical Engine didn't get the team as far as they wanted and instead, they ended up in WWII Era New York. Here, they get recommended to look for the incredible Grace Hopper. As a little girl, Grace took apart clocks to figure out how they work, so we put the kids on a clock puzzle. Then - because of the time period - they headed to (now decommissioned) Brooklyn Naval Yard to do some cryptography. After that, it's off to the University of Pennsylvania to translate binary to words and back using UNIVAC, and finally they ended up in the Auditorium to solve a puzzle using squares to discover Grace won 40 honorary degrees from universities across the word. But why is Grace important?

Purpose: Because of FLOW-MATIC and her passion on compiling. Without Grace, we'd all still need to be mathematicians to code. Learning about Grace took us into learning about binary, how it works, and why compilers are important. She was also a badass woman who fought hard for everything she wanted - such as her position as a Rear Admiral, and her greatest passion was educating the young:

The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, 'Do you think we can do this?' I say, "Try it." And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances.

Margaret Hamilton

Grace sent the kids forward in time to the 1960s, where they went searching for the vivacious Margaret Hamilton. They end up at MIT (which is where Scratch is developed, btw), to check out Margaret's weather-predicting computer system where they started simple for the day and did a weather terms word-search. Then it's off to NASA, which is where Margaret is famous for working. They learned about the Little Old Ladies (LOLs) who sewed code into wiring on space shuttles and did a true/false sewing puzzle to make an image. After that, they headed to each of Margaret's companies where they did a model-sorting puzzle for data grouping and a debugging puzzle for error checking.

Purpose: Margaret is famous for her work on the Apollo 11 project for NASA where she was the software lead. She introduced error-checking code for astronauts, which was later removed, and then they made a mistake that her very code would have solved. Knowing this, Margaret was able to communicate what to do so the mission didn't need to be aborted. We learned about problem-solving and why error checking and debugging code is important.

Fun Fact: Probably one of the most enjoyable moments I had was at the end of this room where we reviewed Margaret Hamilton and one of the young girls excitably said, "Wait! She's still alive?!". It's nice to see heroes being created right before my eyes.

Bill Gates

How much do I need to really discuss about Bill Gates? ;) This one was fun, simply because almost all the kids already knew who he was, and as we kind of expected that, we got to share fun things with them. Due to timing on this day, we cut down our puzzles to two instead of four (and one of them wasn't even a puzzle anyway, but it ended up being our favorite part). We talked about how Bill and his friends hacked computers as kids to get more time on them at school since they were limited. They did a puzzle about the Pancake Problem and flipped pancakes (and then ate them) to see if they could match Bill's algorithm. Then we discussed how he started in BASIC and we showed part of a video of how BASIC was coded. Finally, we talked about Bill and Melinda's philanthropy and how they're passionate about helping people, giving the kids a creative task to build their own super hero revolving around a name, a power used to help people, a vehicle, and a sidekick. This was by far ours - and the kids - favorite exercise of the week. They had so much fun showing off their heroes to everyone!

Purpose: It's important to show Bill Gates to kids as a potential as to where being a coder can take you. How creative ideas and problem solving can move your forward in life, and how if you keep your heart open to helping people, that's the most important part.

Fun Fact: I really want to show off our favorite hero of the week. The kid here is named Baker, and yes, I had permission to photograph him. I sent the photo to his mom, too, because he's just so happy and adorable in it! Super Unicorn has a Super Heal Unisword that heals people, and I think he's just about the best superhero I've ever seen. We had other fun ones like a teleporting librarian who rides a vespa and teaches kids in low-income areas how to read. Kids are so great!

How to Plan an Escape Room

There are a lot of things to consider if you decide to plan your own escape room for some kids in your community. I'm going to break it down into three small segments:

Have a Cohesive Story

Having a cohesive story is easy if you're doing a single room or short narrative. Each day, these took us between an hour and an hour and a half (except the last day, which we shortened). However, jumping between one character to another required us to put a reminder in each day as to where they'd been before, why, and how they ended up in the place they were this time. It's important to make sure that each step follows the last and sometimes a little explanation goes a long way to help the kids wrap their brains around an imaginative jump (in space-time in our case!).

Make the Puzzles Fit

Each of the puzzles that we made directly went with the theme of the story or person that they ran into at that time. Most of the people they talked to weren't the character the segment was about, but people who knew them and were trying to help them find the person. So we used those themes and locations to provide content. Ada was probably the hardest, so we stole from Victorian England and London itself for some ideas and relied on locations instead of people (except Lord Byron) to get them to their target.

Consider Cognitive Overhead

We learned pretty quickly that how the puzzles were organized mattered, and we actually have cut down the amount we'll do if we ever take on Odyssey again in future years (I hope so!). Starting the kids with a hard puzzle and then moving them on to an easier one was more difficult for them, rather than warming them up from easier to harder. This can easily conflict with theme, though, so balancing the two is a tricky process to consider!

Wrapping it Up

In the end, they all made it back home, and on a high note of having created their own inspirational superheroes. Almost all of the kids continued to work on their drawings of their superheroes on break after the Escape Room ended, so I highly recommend finishing up on a creative exercise that inspires them to use their imaginations. After all, what is coding except implementing an idea? And that was the entire point :)

Have thoughts, comments, questions? Send me a message on twitter and I'd love to chat with you!

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