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en:blog:2015:0823_scratch2015ams

report: Scratch Conference Amsterdam 2015

Summary: the visual programming languages like scratch are going mainstream

Waag, sience park, zuiderkerk, oba-library. Image rights: scratch2015ams.org

Because i helped Andrea Mayr with her turtlestitch project she managed to get me into the Scratch conference in Amsterdam. Scratch is an easy-to-learn visual programming language, especially popular among educators. The conference took place in various locations in Amsterdam, Holland between 12th and the 15th august 2015. I arrived two days earlier to attend the pre-conference. This is my report, starting with the important links section:

pre-conference

Waag society

The first two days of the pre-conference happened inside the historic fortress building of Waag, in the fabulous rooms of the Waag Society Fab Lab. The waag (weigh house) is a fascinating place and my favorite spot in Amsterdam. It's the oldest non-religious public building of the city and traditionally housed guilds of craftmen in it's towers. The upper floors are occupied by the Waag society and are currently housing rooms for events and parties as well as the Fab Lab. The Fab lab has it's own Bio-Lab as well as diverse machinery (3d-printers, saws, lasercutters) and can be used by the public. The Fab lab is popular among local artists as well as among local children.

Beetle Blocks, a three dimensional turtle

Screenshot of beetleblocks, a 3-dimensioonal turtle graphic. Image rights: beetleblocks.com

The pre-conference was visited by around twenty participants from several countries. The first day was a workshop about Beetleblock, a fascinating 3D turtle visual programming tool. It runs currently only inside the Google Chrome Browser, but not inside other browsers like Chromium. I think BeetleBlocks has the potential to become very popular among math and geometry teachers. Beetleblocks is also a very simple to use tool for everyone interested in code-generated 3D art like the Lindenmayer System.

BeetleBlocks is currently in development and still in the Alpha phase. Developer Eric Rosenbaum has put his project under the fee Apache license and is looking forward for bug reports and feature requests at the projects Github page.

turtle stitch and stitch code

Andrea Mayr giving a turtle stitch master class. Image license: cc-by-sa 4.0 by Horst JENS

On the second day of the pre-conference, Andrea Mayr gave a master class about her turtle stitch project. Turtle stitch is a fork of the Snap project. It's a visual programming tool to control stitching machines. Participants of the master class created patterns and stitched them on textiles using programmable stitching machines. Turtle stich (creating stich patterns by code) as well as it's drawing-tool sister project stitch code are both maintained by programmer/artist Michael Aschauer and both licensed under the free Affero GPL license. The code of both projects is on Github: Turtlestitch and StitchCode.

The resulting art of the workshop (code-generated patterns stitched on textile) was on display during the conference and during Andrea's talks.

Result of turtle stitch.
Another result of turtle stitch and code
Michael Aschauer and Andrea Mayr working at the turtlestitch Masterclass in Waag Fablab

conference opening

I spent the afternoon inside Amsterdam's impressive OBA library at a seminar with the title “how to scale coding dojos”. The seminar was run international telecommunication company Liberty Global. A personnel manager of the company told of his problems hiring IT personal (he has to look until eastern Europe to fill positions in Holland) and said that his companie is willing to support everyone who runs a Coding Dojo for children, with the aim to fascinate more youths a tech career in STEM. As far as i understood everyone organizing a local Coder Dojo or code club can apply, no matter if inside or outside the Netherlands. The international Coderdojo.com website is run by a foundation. Liberty global handed out flyers for coding dojo organisators urging them to get in contact with mvo@office.ziggo.nl for support. The whole seminar was rather short and informal, and included a video about a gigantic nation-wide coder dojo in Belgium, where every shool kid participated in a whole day event inside a sport stadium.

Afterwards i headed upstears to a top floor of the OBA building to get my conference registration package - a bag with maps, postcard, conference shedule and stickers.

First day

The first two official days of the conference took place inside the Science Park university building of Amsterdam. There were always several talks to choose from. Most talks were not about scratch itself but about sratch-like projects or forks - at least the talks i remember. The audience was an interesting mix of educators, hackers, developers (direct from MIT) and users of scratch. There was plenty of time between the talks for networking and meeting interesting people. Unlike at other tech conferences, the Scratch conference enjoyed an remarkable large percentage of female participants (~60%?).

Some of the talks were called Ignites and consisted of several 5-minutes short talks by different groups of peoples. Those talks quickly become my favorite kind of talks and were never boring. It was also possible to attend tech-workshops or longer talks about one topic.

I was very impressed with the artwork of graphic artists present at the conference. They managed to listen to a talk and creating big, comic-like posters about the topics of the talks, a bit like the amazing artwork of RSA Animate.

Artists were at work during the conference to visualize the talks
Detail about Andrea's turtlestitch talk
At the end of each conference day all talks together were made into one big picture

The first conference day ended with free beer, interesting people from all over the world and a fine party inside the historic rooms of the Waag fortress.

Second and third day

The second day took also place inside Science park university, and ended in Waag society. Unlike the first day, this day ended with different “Safaris”, guided excursions to interesting places in Amsterdam. At the end of the second day a big poster session was held were each lecturer stood by a poster of his speech, aviable for chat and further discussions. This was a great opportunity to inform on missed talks and explore interesting topics deeper. I tried to make pictures of all posters, please browse my Flickr album for details.

Poster session at the end of the second conference day

The third -and sadly, last- day of the conference took place inside a church, the zuiderkerk. I wondered why not every church rent out itself as an event location, because there was space enough inside the church for religious activities beside being modified to better serve as an event location. I had to catch my flight and do not remember a lot of the talks of this day, so i used this day mostly to chat and swap business cards.

Talks and projects

Here are some talks and projects of the conference, in no particular order:

GP

The guys at MIT are already busy coding an Scratch successor: GP (see video).

According to the talk GP is in early alpha and will be released in one or two years. It aims to be a general purpose programming language, like Python, but using visual programming like in Scratch. GP should be able to do all those things exciting programming languages can but Scratch currently can not, like reading and writing text files, accessing data from websites etc. If GP makes true on those promised features, it has the potential to make coding aviable to a very big part of the not-yet-coding population. As far as i understood it will be possible to alternate between classical typing text mode and visual programming mode (moving blocks with the mouse).

Drone control with visual programming

Tickleapp is an visual programming app to progam a flight path for a drone or robot. watch the Video here

Multi-lingual Scratch wiki

The Scratch Wiki is truly multi-lingual thanks to the german scratch-wiki people. At the moment only 5 languages are supported, but if you want to create a scratch wiki in your own native language, the guys from the german scratch wiki team can even provide hosting for you as well as support.

things i learned

Other interesting projects can be found by watching the recorded (ignites) talks on the Scratch2015AMS page or by browsing the poster session images on my Flickr album. Some random observations:

  • The visual programming paradigma is not confined to Scratch: Snap, Blockly, PocketCode and many other forks and similar projects are alive and gathering momentum. The blending between text-based and visual programming was a much discussed topic on the conference. Of course, the most vital (most forked) projects are free/libre open source software.
  • Libraries are becoming coding centers to help children with coding, the new literacy skill.
  • Great Britain updated it IT curriculum and will have each shool kid be confronted with at least 2 different programming languages. (At the moment, teacher training is under way) This aims, together with “one device per child” like projects like the RasperryPi to attract students to tech careers and secure jobs and national competitive ability.
  • Microsoft has fascinating technology: Project Spark allows any kid to create World-of-Warcraft-like worlds and “program” in-game events by just using an x-box controller. The coding consist of simple “if-then” chains of pre-buildt commands. The in-buildt business model (shop) is the opposite of free software and open-source: kids get educated by the game to pay for virtual goods (3D-Models), a bit like in Steam workshop. While the possibilities and graphics are truly impressive (it is possible to blockify the whole game world into minecraft-like optic by a single button press) i doubt that project Spark will gain mass momentum in Education and attract lot of coders until it becomes open-source. As is it now, kids learn by it to click buttons and use functions inside a close-sourced, gated, highly specific user-community of proprietary software. I doubt that much of the skills learned there are useable in other applications.
  • There is a gap after a kid is fluent coding with visual programming systems like Scratch and before it gets involved into “real” text-based programming languages like Python. New languages like GP and blended coding systems may help to shorten this gap. While it is possible and easy to teach 8-year olds coding with scratch, it is hard to teach students younger than 11 text-based programming languages.
  • There are lot's of “get children to code” initiatives out there in different countries: Afternoon Code-Clubs, Hacking Spaces open for Children, Coder Dojos, bands of hackers visiting schools, teacher trainings etc.
  • it is not so difficult to extend Scratch with code from other programming languages (like java or python).

audio, video and podcast

I did two interviews with artists from the Waag society.

Emma showed me the Waag fablab and talked about the machines and the Fablab's open-to-the-public policy. The uncut mp3-file can be found here:

Emma presenting an instrument made inside the Waag Fab lab

Cecilia is working at Waag society and creating fashion inspired by skeleton structures of tiny animals. The uncut mp3-file of the interview can be found here:

Cecilia designs fashion with machinery from the Waag fab lab

I speak in German language about my impressions of the Scratch conference in issue 218 of the weekly Biertaucherpodcast:

And Derek Breen speaks in English language about the Scratch conference and his book “Scratch for kids”:

The MIT Scratch team did a very nice video report about the conference:

generic tips and obeservations

  • It is a good idea to have a bike in Amsterdam.
  • It is a beautiful 2-hour trip by bike to Almere, where hotels are cheaper than inside Amsterdam.
  • It is sad having to leave a good party early for fear of biking into dark, unknown dutch landscape.
  • I managed to refuse to be full-body-scanned in Amsterdam airport (see Biertaucherpodcast 218)
  • Next Scratch conference 2016 is in Boston, USA?
  • Attending the pre-conferences is a very good idea because time passes far to fast at the 3-day official conference

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