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Meet the Educator: Ingrid Gustafson

Meet the Educator: Ingrid Gustafson
By My Nguyen

This story was originally published on the Scratch Foundation blog.

When Ingrid Gustafson first started out as an Instructional Technology Specialist, she worked in a smaller district where there were few people in the same link of work. Spread across the district at different grade levels, there were few opportunities for technology specialists to interact with one another.


Seeking a professional learning community, Gustafson turned to Twitter. It was on the social networking platform that she first heard about Scratch.

Amidst connecting with other technology specialist educators and participating in conversations around best practices and resources, Gustafson came across an article about the programming language in her Twitter feed.

Eager to learn more, Gustafson and a colleague wrote a grant to attend the first Scratch Conference at MIT in 2008. It was at the conference — between sessions — that Gustafson created her first Scratch project.

“I programmed my fish to move across the screen in my own Fish Chomp game and that was when I really understood how powerful and transformative Scratch could be.”

From that moment on, Gustafson was hooked.

The Scratch Foundation recently spoke to Ingrid Gustafson via email to learn how teachers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are using Scratch in their classrooms.

Who are you and what do you do?

For the past eight years I’ve been lucky enough to be an Instructional Technology Specialist, helping students and teachers learn and teach using technology. Currently I work in Cambridge Public Schools in Cambridge, Ma., focusing on grades 6–12.

How did you get started with Scratch?

When I first started working as an Instructional Technology Specialist, I was in a smaller district where there weren’t very many of us with the same position. We were spread out across the district at different grade levels and without regular opportunities to share best practices. I remember it was when Twitter was still in the awkward phase of everyone trying to figure out how to use the tool. It was beginning to turn into a place for professional learning communities. I was fortunate enough to be able to find other technology specialist educators and participated in conversations around best practices and resources. I remember an article about Scratch popped up in my Twitter feed and I was really interested in learning more.

Fortunately, the timing of my discovery of Scratch was the Spring before the first Scratch Conference at MIT in 2008. Together with a colleague of mine, we wrote a grant to be able to attend the conference with the intent of starting an afterschool club for the following school year. I remember sitting in the old Media Lab in a session lead by Jay Silver, Eric Rosenbaum, and I believe Amon Milner, and I was hooked. I then made what I consider to be my first real project in the hallway between sessions. I programmed my fish to move across the screen in my own Fish Chomp game and that was when I really understood how powerful and transformative Scratch could be.

A few years before in graduate school, I was required to take two semesters of programming. I appreciated learning about how computers work behind-the-scenes, but being a visual learner, I definitely struggled with the text-based coursework. I played around with Scratch and immediately loved the colorful image-based interface. If it made sense to me, I was excited to see how middle school student would react to the programming environment. I often wish I could go back and re-take those two semesters of programming knowing what I know now.

When I first started using Scratch in Cambridge it was in the afterschool setting. I was teaching in an elementary school and there were quite a few 3rd-5th grade students who were really into Scratch through their own experiences outside of school or from hearing about it from their friends. During the second year of the afterschool club, the students started asking a few of their teachers if they could use Scratch for projects in class. This helped open a dialogue between myself and the teachers. The positive experience of the afterschool club with an excited and energetic group of students really confirmed that it was something that would be appropriate to transition into the classroom setting.

How have you helped teachers in Cambridge incorporate Scratch into their lessons in meaningful ways?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to lead a variety of professional development opportunities for teachers in Cambridge to learn about Scratch such as two-hour workshops and an online course spanning over several months.

So many teachers in Cambridge have been open to the idea of using Scratch in their classrooms. It’s been incredible. I’ve been able to work with foreign language teachers, art teachers, social studies teachers, science teachers, math teachers, and music teachers to name a few. Collaborations are focused on the content area first. Often times teachers have specific content they would like to teach in a new way, or content that they know is traditionally difficult for students and they would like an alternate approach to help reach more students. The easiest entry point is to use Scratch as a presentation tool, so many teachers have used Scratch as a way for students to express knowledge.

A student codes their ECOMuve project, involving both Scratch programming and MaKeyMakey.

Can you share an example of how Scratch is being used in a unit or subject?

This past year students in Cambridge’s 6th grade classes did two projects using Scratch. One was a particle simulator to show the movement of particles in a chemical reaction. The second project incorporated original artwork and the MakeyMakey kit to demonstrate an understanding of population dynamics in a forest ecosystem.

What do you hope that students gain from these experiences?

I’ve been excited to share Scratch with teachers and students because I have experienced the thrill of so many personal programming ah-ha moments while using and teaching Scratch. There is something very rewarding about being persistent enough to solve a problem, figure out an error in code, and see your ideas come to life on the computer. My hope is that others can have that feeling of accomplishment, no matter how small, while playing and learning with Scratch.

Gustafson works with participants at a CPSD Family Creative Learning workshop.

I also hope students see how technology and computer science is accessible to everyone — anyone can learn some level of computer science. We try to mention career opportunities and a little bit of computer science history with every project to get students thinking about what computer science might look like for them outside of the classroom.

Can you share a tip for debugging projects in the classroom?

I have a couple tips I’ve observed from working with some very talented educators:

  1. Identify the expert students in the classroom, not only for your own knowledge but also for the benefit of the other students. Introduce the expert users in a way that doesn’t separate them from the other students who are new to Scratch so they are approachable by all students and creates a collaborative environment. There may be some experts who don’t feel comfortable helping others for one reason or another, so after identifying the experts check in with them to see if they are onboard with being a classroom resource.
  2. Ask students to read their code aloud, similar to how you would read a sentence, to someone else in the room. Often times, errors or missing pieces of code will become obvious to either the student or the listener while it is being read aloud.

What advice do you have for educators who want to introduce Scratch programming to their students?

There are a wealth of resources available for teaching Scratch in the classroom, especially on the ScratchEd website and the Creative Computing Curriculum Guide. It’s ok if you don’t know everything about Scratch, so just jump in and give it a try. Start with a “play” day so students have time to explore and try out blocks. You’re going to end up hearing a lot of different sounds, probably the cat meow hundreds of times, but I think it’s important to set the tone for using Scratch. If you set it up as an exploratory experience from the beginning, students will feel more comfortable trying to problem solve situations later on in their own projects.