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Scratch in the Science Curriculum: An Interview with Brian Foley of California State University, Northridge

Brian Foley is an associate professor at California State University in Northridge, CA (CSUN). In addition to teaching courses in the department of Secondary Education, Brian has developed support programs for teachers and students in the Los Angeles area, including professional development workshops and summer programs for students that focus on educational technology and science education. One in particular is the CSUN Summer Academic Enrichment Program (saep.net), which uses Scratch to teach computational thinking and science concepts to middle and high school students. In this interview, we asked Brian to share his thoughts on SAEP, Scratch, and Science education.

How did you come to your current position?

I went to grad school at the University of California at Berkeley, where I worked with Marcia Linn and Barbara White. I wanted to recreate some of the stuff that Barbara was doing with Thinker Tools curriculum, in Scratch, but in the context of gaming.


In my graduate research, I looked at visualization and how kids can use visualization and computer simulations. I came to the conclusion that the visuals can help some students, but a lot of them really don’t understand what’s happening. It’s a black box. You don’t really know why the simulation does what it does, so it’s not all that much better than seeing it in real life. But if you can figure out how the simulation works and you can really see what’s going on inside, then you really understand the science. And then, you have a sort of model to play with – this is related Seymore Papert’s vision of “microworlds,” so it’s not totally original. I wanted to try that out and have kids build these models and see if they could build understandings – and Scratch turns out to be a great tool for that.

So that’s how the CSUN Scratch summer program get started?

It’s called “Science, Art, and Computer Games (SACG)”. We’re really lucky. We’ve had a summer program at the university for, I think, like 30 years. And it’s just something that the university has always done for local kids, and it’s run by the Department of Secondary Education. This class offers a really good opportunity for me to get some experience teaching Scratch with middle school students. [Before becoming a professor] I was an eighth grade science instructor. So, it’s been a good symbiotic collaboration. My hope is that by building the game, building the model – because games essentially are simulations – that the students can really internalize some of the science that’s at play.

What type of Scratch projects are the students creating?

I was a Physics major in college, so I tend to do Physics type things. For example, we do a lot of motion. I think motion is the easiest thing that they can get into, and it can be a difficult topic for kids. We do things like create an Angry Birds type game. We’ll create an Asteroids game. And we have a racing game, where they drive a car around. There are lots of fun games you can do that are pretty easy to code and also have good science content.


How do students get introduced to Scratch?

I like to start with the driving game, because it’s really easy to get started. I have them create a car, have them create scripts for turning the car left, right, and move forward. And then we introduce the idea of velocity and how you create a variable to control velocity. And so you can introduce a lot of key concepts in about a half an hour. They actually create a playable game within a half an hour. Then we elaborate on it over the next couple of days. We talk about scoring and adding a second car so that they can play against their friends and things like that.


We break into velocity for the next game, because we do X and Y velocity with Angry Birds and introduce gravity so that they can have their birds flying and look cool. And, of course, it’s not all birds. Everybody wants to try their own thing, get their own vison on the screen.
 You can see other activities and starter projects that have been tested so far at https://sites.google.com/site/scratchscience.

We hear you’re taking this summer program into schools now. What’s been most challenging about that process?

In the summer we have a lot of time. It’s a five-week course. We meet two hours a day. That’s a lot of time, so we can really do a lot of cool stuff in Scratch. But, you know, if you’re dealing with 40-minute periods or something like that, it’s really hard to get that critical amount of time for students to really start doing things on their own in Scratch. And that’s been our challenge. 


I’ve been trying to deal with this by creating activities where you still introduce Scratch and the basics, but the kids don’t have to build everything themselves. I give them a partially built program and a challenge that says, “Hey, how can you finish this?” The students don’t have to do all the creating the graphics and some of the game infrastructure, but they work on the core part of the game. They have to put the science in, or put the mathematics in, to make the game work.

And that’s another real judgment call – how much do you help kids versus how much do you leave it up to them to struggle and figure things out? That’s something we always struggle with. How much should we let them go, and when should we jump in? I don’t have any good answers yet, except I probably should not jump in as much as I do. Which is the case with most teachers.


What would you tell other teachers?


I talk to a lot of teachers about, “How can you engage this in your classroom? How can you get your students to do some of this? Even if it’s like an extra credit assignment or something, but how can more students become familiar and aware that they can try these things?” Some of the teachers are intimidated by it. But a lot of them see real potential, and I have heard back from people saying, “You know that Scratch thing that you were making us do a couple years ago? I didn’t like it then, but now I’m doing all this stuff with it.” That was really neat to hear. And, of course, professional development is always going to be the key. The more we can develop interest and create opportunities for teachers to learn more, that’s going to be very central. I’ve been trying to collect a list, keep a network of teachers in this area who are using Scratch and that’s been nice as more of a community. I wish that there was a few more.


Scratch Project: 
randomness