Running an in-house Scratch Jam.

Having run a really successful Pi Scratch Jam in my school for 30 year 9 students, I thought I’d share some ideas, tips and resources from our day. It involved a lot of planning, prep and problem solving, and we had a surprise visit from OfSted that day! They were really impressed with the problem solving, creativity and resilience that the kids showed, as well as the engagement and enjoyment all-round. I was really impressed with the quality of the finished projects.

We’d had a visit to Bournemouth University to try their Scratch Jam where our kids scooped top prize, and they asked us to run an internal version in-house.

The brief was fairly simple: Connect Scratch to the real world and Create something Fun.
This was the original brainstorm that Mike and I did on wrapping paper.

All great ideas start out as a sketch.
All great ideas start out as a sketch.

Originally we’d drafted 6 different challenges:
-Make a giant interactive boardgame
-Make an interactive floor piano.
-Create an e-reader hidden inside a real book.
-Create an interactive Nerf firing range.
-Create a fruit based controller for Pong
-Create a skeleton sensitive scratch games using a Kinect.
-Create a sound and light controlled game.
-Make a tilt-sensitive burglar alarm.

(We ditched the burglar alarm due the kids unfamiliarity with the GPIO, and the e-reader we felt was too challenging as we couldn’t source a suitable screen at the time).  We hooked up and hashed out a quick table of projects and made a shopping list, together with what we thought the programming difficulty was like, including any python handlers or requisitions we needed to make.
Project WRAP

We also made a list of what we’d require from IT services, including projectors, portable speakers, phono leads, 4-way extensions etc.  All that stuff makes the biggest difference on the day.

In  the end, we used a mixture of Pis and Windows PCs running Scratch.  We used Makey Makeys, Kinect and a picoboard to do the real world connecting. (We’ll run a Pi/GPIO challenge next time, but we decided to start with something they already knew.

Here’s my tips list, in no particular order.

  1. Work backwards – Make sure you have a clear goal state that you want the students to achieve in their groups. Work backwards from this to structure your challenges.
  2.  Use code experts to help out with the code challenges in groups. Either get Ks4 or Ks5 students to help out. Teach them to ask questions, not provide readymade solutions.
  3.  Enable flexibility in the challenge – The kids love to be able to be able to solve problems their own way, not a pre-prescribed way.
  4.  Provide structure to the challenges – We used programming goals, construction goals and creative goals.
  5.  Reward problem solving, teamwork – This means that you are embedding and rewarding the skill sets that you want to see develop.
  6.  Have prizes, certificates pre-organized. (Our prize fund dwindled spectacularly, so we had to improvise).
  7. Mix up the teams a little.  I had a STEM team who knew how to code for the Kinect really well in Scratch, so I gave them a project they were unfamiliar with.  Their ideas were much better as a result.
  8.  Share the judgement criteria in advance – If they know what to do in advance, they can plan for it at the start of the day, and there’s less last minute inclusions into the code, something which often breaks code at the crucial moment.
  9.  Fuel – Biscuits were welcome.  Malted Milk were particularly prized for the combination of low crumb, high flavour.
  10.  Build time for a showcase – Sharing their creations is paramount. If they don’t feel like their input is valued or shared, they won’t value the whole activity. We had an hour’s showcase, and had a visiting class and Senior Team from the school.  Watching them jump around with the Kinect-Controlled shooter was priceless.
  11. Bookmark the day with a purpose, and a link to real STEM careers.  I chose to link the day to problem solving, and also different interface designs.  We tried to have industry speakers and visitors to come and judge, but we had a last minute cancellation.
  12.  Share all projects online – We uploaded all of the kids code to the Scratch Website to showcase their work.  For future Code Jams, we’ll upload our code to github.

There were some technical issues, but our school’s technicians are really supportive, and we made sure we’d put our requisitions in the week before, so there was not much unexpected hardware faffing to do.

The quality of the final builds and programs were incredible. The winning team had build a Giant Version of operation called Dogeration, which unsurprisingly, had a Vetinary twist. They hooked up the BBQ tongs to the Makey with wires, and then had different scoring and penalties based on how many times you touched the sides of the cavities. Their prize for the day was to get their project made into a permanent laser-cut wooden version (still under construction).

Here’s the final document that was printed and shared with the groups on the day: It pretty much covered most of what they needed to know, and they could research their code, or instructables using the links.

The Great Purbeck Scratch3 (Word Document – Sorry!)

If you do use it, then give us a shout and tell us how your Jam went down!

I hope this helps other teachers to take the leap and run their own Scratch Jam in-house.  Our next step is to run this in other feeder Primary schools, and use our students as the code experts, and build their skills in mentoring and helping others to come to their own solutions to problems.


Benchmarking the Pi 2 with Minecraft, TNT

We managed to get hold of a Raspberry Pi Mark2! It is purported to have 6x the performance of the Pi B+ but check the great blog post from Eben Upton about how those benchmarks were calculated.

Naturally we wanted to do our own key benchmarking tests, so we set out to compare the B+ and a Pi 2 together.

When we set up our 8 Raspberry Pi model Bs originally, the STEM crew followed Martin O Hanlon’s excellent Python and Minecraft tutorials and Whaleygeek’s python flashcards and started making some very cool scripts, like auto digging and cubes of bombs on demand.

One of the early challenges was to make a 64, 125 and 1000 block sized cube of TNT and detonate it.  Upon detonation of The Big One(TM), the Pi’s processor load chart would max out, and the fps would drop to about 1 frame per every couple of minutes. Eventually, the Pi would come round again, but it generated a lot of heat from the processor, so much so we thought about using heat sinks.

So – we thought it would be a great empirical benchmark for the new generation of  Pis.  We tried to set up 4 different Pis, with the most up-to date build of Raspbian (but ended updating the A+ and B for ages) , loaded the same script in all of them, and executed them in the most synchronised way we had available (pressing the execute buttons at the same time).  We timed how long it took for the processor load to drop below 50%.

It’s obvious the Pi2 has a great deal more grunt, and the extra processor speed and RAM really contribute to performance. You notice it especially when browsing or watching HTML5 YouTube: it’s a feasible computer replacement whereas the Model B was a tinkering machine or sandbox that you could use, if you were patient.

Our next experiments are to get piplay loaded on and perform some emulator benchmarks, and see if it can be built into one MAME Joystick to rule them all!

Taking Homework to the Next Level.

Ella's incredible piece of work showing the magnetic field lines in 3D around a bar magnet.
Ella’s incredible piece of work showing the magnetic field lines in 3D around a bar magnet.

Year 7 student Ella Lewis prodcuced an incredible piece of home learning for Mr Fairweather’s Physics homework (Make a model of a magnet).  Working with her father, she has used a variety of techniques that work exceptionally well in combination.

The best thing about this is that it forms an amazing teaching resource  –   I’d use this to teach about magnetic field lines at KS3/4 as it’s so immediate and clear, better than any diagram, experiment or simulation I’ve ever used in the classroom.

Perhaps she will find the time to put up some build instructions or an instructable to help other students to do the same.

My only wish would be to have two, so you could get students to imagine what would happen if you bought them pole to pole!