Summer Code

Assistant Professor Karen Brennan shares expert tips for out-of-school computing fun

June 16, 2015
Summer Code

We’re all on board with summer reading, but what about summer coding? As modes of communication expand in this digital age, traditional notions of what it means to be literate are evolving too. Computational literacy — learning to read and write the language of computers — is gaining traction as a new educational benchmark. Soon, not too many Junes from now, your third grader will come home with a summer coding list tucked into her folder alongside that trusty summer reading list.  

One of the most articulate advocates for the power of computing as a creative, mind-expanding medium is Assistant Professor Karen Brennan. She founded ScratchEd, an online community for educators who are using the friendly programming language Scratch to bring computer science to their classrooms. Last year, she released the Guide to Creative Computing, an accessible resource for teachers, librarians, museum educators, parents, and students to plunge in and start coding. And now she’s out with a companion piece — a coding workbook specifically for learners.

Brennan sat down for an EdCast to talk about the expressive possibilities of computing — and how to keep kids engaged over the summer. Tips and resources below.

Among Brennan’s recommendations for happy computing:

  • Keep it fun. “There are so many tools out there that are profoundly grounded in kids’ interests and passions,” she says. Coding can be a tricky business, even when you’re doing it for fun, Brennan adds. “But that’s how you get through the challenges — through that intrinsic motivation and passion for what you’re doing.”
  • Keep it creative and open-ended. She likes Scratch partly because of the “wide walls” nature of its design, where users can make many different kinds of things — games, stories, animations, and more. Hopscotch is another exciting bet, she says, as is Google’s CS First, which she says has done a good job coming up with programming activities focused on fashion, sports, arts — subjects that defy the stereotypes of what computer science is.
  • It’s easy to think of coding as something you do on your own, just you and the machine. But coding is a really social practice. --Karen Brennan @harvarded #hgse #usableknowledgeFind communities online. Look for tools that have communities built around them — like both Scratch and Hopscotch — so coders can connect to one another, share their work, and get feedback.
  • Keep it social. “It’s easy to think of coding as something you do on your own, just you and the machine. But coding is a really social practice,” Brennan says. Parents can host gatherings or clubs at home or get kids involved with library offerings, which are ramping up their tech opportunities. For kids, “going to places where there are groups of people engaging in play and making and creating is exciting,” she says.

Additional Resources

Photo courtesy MIT Media Lab

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.