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Book Review: Super Scratch Programming Adventure! 74

MassDosage writes "I first heard about the Scratch programming language a few years ago and the idea of a simple language designed to teach kids to program in a fun, new way has always appealed to me. For those of you who don't know, Scratch was developed by the wonderfully named "Lifelong Kindergarten Group" at the MIT Media Lab. It's a programming language that allows programs to be built by dragging, dropping, configuring and combining various blocks that represent common coding concepts such as if/else statements and while loops. Scratch also provides tools for doing simple animation, playing audio and controlling sprites. The idea behind it is to make programming simple, fun and accessible to first time programmers so they can understand the key concepts without first needing to learn complex syntax which can come later when they move on from Scratch to other languages. It has been very successful and there are literally millions of Scratch programs freely available from the Scratch website and many others." Read below for the rest of Mass Dosage's review.
Super Scratch Programming Adventure!: Learn to Program By Making Cool Games
author The LEAD Project
pages 160
publisher The LEAD Project
rating 7/10
reviewer Mass Dosage
ISBN 978-1-59327-409-2
summary Learn to Program By Making Cool Games
The Super Scratch Programming Adventure book has recently been translated from the Chinese original and is in keeping with the Scratch ethos of bringing programming to a new generation of programmers. It is hard to tell what the age group for this book is as children have such varied technical skills but I would say it's best for relatively computer savvy youngsters who know the basics of computing and are comfortable with a mouse and keyboard and know how to drag, drop, open, save, cut, paste etc. It should be suitable for ages from 8 up to young teenagers but even those a bit older looking to learn programming could find it useful while younger children might also be able to get something out of it if guided by someone older.

The book starts of with a bit of background and points the reader to where they can freely download and install the Scratch application which is used to create Scratch programs. This is available for Windows, Mac and Linux and was a breeze to install on Ubuntu Linux. All programming is done via a GUI to avoid having to deal with typos and syntax errors. The Scratch environment is fairly simple and intuitive and easy to get started with. A downloadable zip file accompanies the book and contains skeleton programs with sound and images that are used for creating applications as well as fully complete programs which can be used for reference if you get stuck creating your own versions. The zip file also contains a "Getting started with Scratch" guide that is a very useful prelude to the book if you've never used Scratch before and covers the main concepts and tools that are used in the book itself. It is important to note that this book is not a manual for Scratch and doesn't provide exhaustive coverage of what Scratch can do or how to use all of its features. Super Scratch Programming Adventure takes a "learn by doing" approach by guiding you through the creation of a few programs and leaves you to figure the rest out yourself. Given the target audience this makes a lot of sense — most youngsters would much rather build some cool applications right away than wade through lots of dry documentation first.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure is divided into various "stages" (computer game speak for "chapters") that are linked by a colorful cartoon adventure story. Each stage guides the reader through creating a computer game from... err... scratch and teaches them some fundamental concepts along the way. Later stages build on lessons learnt earlier so they should be read in order and the book steers one towards this with the cartoon linking what you do in the various stages together as you build games which in turn become part of the story. The early stages start off showing how to use sprites and move them around and how to use the palette to build up programs and attach behaviors to things. Later stages cover user input, broadcasting and reacting to events, flow control, collision detection, variables, animation and audio with each stage harder than the previous one right up until the final stage which involves creating a fighting game with numerous sprites and interactions between them and the user. I found all the games fun to build and use and could definitely see the distinct lessons each one was designed to teach.

The learning curve is a bit higher than I expected and there is little hand holding, at some points you just have to look at the included code blocks and figure out yourself how to build them up. It's not always easy and readers will need to be fairly computer literate and able and willing to figure a fair amount out on their own but ultimately this is probably a good thing as explaining everything in minute detail would take a lot longer, be quite boring and would lead some to just blindly copying things instead of being forced to understand what they are doing. I could imagine that some young readers might find this a bit challenging so it's probably a good idea to have a computer literate adult around to help out if they get stuck. The included complete source for each game also helps although looking at this does feel a bit like cheating. Each stage ends with suggestions for further programming on ones own and I felt that these are really the key for this book to succeed as a learning tool as these make one think about and apply what was just read. Again I think this would be a good point for a parent or someone older to step in and encourage a younger reader to build on what they've learnt and suggest creating something new for themselves. The book contains plenty of pointers to online resources where readers can learn more, ask questions and share their creations with others.

I would definitely recommend Super Scratch Programming Adventure for those eager to learn programming but be aware that to really get the most out of it it's probably best if someone who already knows how to program is around to read along, help out and encourage further creation outside of what the book shows. There is a wealth of Scratch related information on the internet but this book provides a good way to get started by demonstrating how to build fun applications and hopefully this in turn will encourage readers to move on to creating more on their own.

Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this book free of charge by the publisher for review purposes. They placed no restrictions on what I could say and left me to be as critical as I wanted so the above review is my own honest opinion.

You can purchase Super Scratch Programming Adventure!: Learn to Program By Making Cool Games from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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Book Review: Super Scratch Programming Adventure!

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  • What is wrong with learning using BASIC ? It worked for all those folks (including me) who learned how to program in the 90s. It was not difficult and was fun in its own way.
    • It worked for all those folks (including me) who learned how to program in the 90s.

      You kids today! I learned BASIC in 1986. Now get off my lawn.

    • Re:BASIC (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @04:02PM (#42584761) Journal

      I think it's a "the first hit is free" theory applied to programming.

      Especially for Those Damn Kids Today With Their 'X-Box' and 'Droid-Pad', there is a fuckton of (sometimes quite difficult, sometimes not; but definitely overwhelming) amount of boilerplate and support libraries and middleware and things behind even the most trivial applications they are likely to interact with before they are introduced to programming. Anything they are capable of producing will seem primitive by comparison, potentially causing loss of interest. If, so the theory goes, you provide them with an environment where doing at least some things is much simplified, you can draw them in and introduce the tougher stuff as you go along.

      After all, between FOSS and crippleware or free-as-in-stolen proprietary tools, it's not as though the problem with programming education is lack of tools. This isn't the bad old days where getting Turbo Pascal for only $50 1983-dollars was a crazy good deal... The trick now is pedagogical.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Bigby ( 659157 )

      If something more visual can be used to teach basic algorithms in a neat/innovative way, it blows learn BASIC away. For instance, an exercise where you have to organize animals. In one scenario, you have X boxes and X animals. You cannot drag an animal in between two animals (array). In another scenario, it starts acting like a Linked List, where you can drag animals in between others. In another scenario, it introduces hashing to the pupil. A simple categorizing of animals by first letter or taxonomy

    • Simple. Trying to teach a 3-4 year old to type lines of code when they can't even spell their name/recognize words will be a mountain of a task that isn't necessary to teach logic concepts like programming
      • by Jeng ( 926980 )

        I put a craptastic old computer running Ubuntu in the living room for the kids when they come over.

        I didn't have to teach them to read, they taught themselves.

        Considering their fascination with Mario I may be able to get one of them going on programming by showing him how to make his own levels.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by cats ( 316481 )

          I didn't have to teach them to read, they taught themselves.

          unkel jeng are bestest unkel
          i am teech me are read by nobody!
          tank u unkel jeng!

          • by Jeng ( 926980 )

            Damn dude, he learned from youtube and flash video game sites, not from a dnd troll or ogre.

            Please continue to submit what you think he may type like though =)

        • I didn't have to teach them to read, they taught themselves.

          Yeah, well my kids are so smart they taught themselves how to read inside their mother's womb. At six months, they'd read War & Peace. After teaching themselves Russian first, of course.

    • Re:BASIC (Score:5, Informative)

      by Teancum ( 67324 ) <robert_horning@netzero. n e t> on Monday January 14, 2013 @04:29PM (#42585017) Homepage Journal

      The one thing that Scratch does by far and away better than Dartmouth BASIC (and subsequent variants) is the ability to implement multimedia design. It also introduces some "real time" programming concepts like event driven interrupts, multithreaded programming, and a whole bunch of other fun and interesting ideas that simply flow from the language design where you don't even need to teach the kids what they mean before they are using them extensively in their programming.

      Mind you, I was one of those folks who learned how to program not in the 1990's but rather in the 1970's on 110 baud teletype terminals with crusty yellow paper and the ability to use punch tape for data storage. That was using the real Dartmouth BASIC and not the fancy stuff that later 8-bit microcomputers did to pervert the language. BASIC has its place and does some really fun things, but if you haven't tried Scratch, you don't know what you are missing.

      Having a bunch of young kids myself, I've introduced Scratch programming to them and it is a perfect fit for introducing computer programming to middle school kids (nine to twelve year olds give or take a year or two on each end). It has a couple of artificial limitations simply because of some paranoia on the part of MIT that I strongly disagree with (it has no file I/O and the Scratch 2.0 variant has a really quirky network socket layer that is just odd) but you can do some really interesting things with the language.

      If you want to whip up a program in an hour or two to do something really fun and interesting, Scratch is by far and away the best language to do a prototype multimedia programming interface. That would give you the added benefit that some employer or boss that says to use that interface for production code would have to be informed that you will be using a "real" compiler for the production stuff and that the interface is only a prototype.

      • I was one of those folks who learned how to program not in the 1990's but rather in the 1970's on 110 baud teletype terminals with crusty yellow paper and the ability to use punch tape for data storage. That was using the real Dartmouth BASIC and not the fancy stuff that later 8-bit microcomputers did to pervert the language.

        Shall we all get off your lawn now?

        • by Teancum ( 67324 )

          No, you need to get off my dad's lawn. He was programming computers before I was born with real he-man computers that had water-cooled vacuum tubes and physical patch cords that were in the CPU cabinet.

    • BASIC, as it pertains to Windows, isn't available on Linux As-Is. But there are alternatives like KBasic and Gambas. That's why.
  • by crazyjj ( 2598719 ) * on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:49PM (#42584633)

    There was a similar "language" (actually more an IDE) that I worked with a few years ago with my nephew, called Alice []. It was a lot of fun, taught a lot of fundamental OOP concepts, and was surprisingly powerful (yet simple to use). My nephew had all kinds of animation going in a pretty short time, and even did a couple of games in it. Sure beat hand-coding BASIC on a Commodore 64.

    It was aimed at about the middle-school level, I would say. But it could also be used at the high-school level too, for a basic "Intro. to Programming" class--something that I wish were offered more often at the primary and secondary level in the U.S. Even non-programmers could benefit from knowing a LITTLE about programming, instead of just treating software like some kind of magic.

    • Yeah, in high school our first intro to programming was something like Hypercard [], although ours ran on DOS. I remember having quite a bit of fun with that. We also learned quite a bit of "programming" through the use of Quattro Pro (spreadsheet) and FileMaker Pro (Database, like MS Access) The advantages of these is that they introduce you to programming while getting you acquainted with real world tools. Unlike Scratch, which (almost) nobody would use to create a real program. After that we moved on to
  • Visual Basic flow charts? Oh right, this book got translated from Chinese, re-invent the wheel much?

    Srsly, we need to teach our kids to read properly first, math wouldn't hurt either, otherwise we'd just have a generation of retarded programmers with best practices being super-expensive primo code... oh wait I can profit here... carry on.
  • by hguorbray ( 967940 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @04:11PM (#42584833),69018/

    Cowboy Bebop epi about an online cult

    -I'm just sayin'
  • It is hard to tell what the age group for this book is as children have such varied technical skills

    Beyond that, language level? Gimme a sample? How bout a comparison? A kid who reads "Boys Life" (the boy scouting magazine) would find this simple or complicated? On your amazon affiliate link above, there are "customer images" from "jessica" that are JUST barely too far away for me to read it.

    You know what would be cool, a comic book version of "the little schemer". Assuming that translates to comics well enough.

  • Has anyone gotten these to install and work together with a reasonable amount of effort? I can get the Sweets desktop package to work, but all I see is "no file found here" type errors when I attempt to run Scratch from this environment. I guess I'm the first person in history to ever attempt this. I would have expected it to be commonplace, but I'm willing to follow behind someone's snowshoes on this. Thank you.
  • I use a scratch variant called BYOB ( or Snap!), it comes out of Berkeley. We are using the "Super Scratch Programming Adventure" book although I first started with the Scratch "Getting Started" tutorial until I felt each whole class had a strong grasp on the fundamentals. The book actually does a good job of introducing the scratch IDE, which is something the getting started tutorial is lacking in. I am using it to teach 1st - 5th graders, the main difficulty with teaching it to the lower grades is that

    • If you are ready to have the students move on from making simple animations in Scratch perhaps to making games in 2D and 3D you may want to check out AgentCubes [] Like BYOB, you can make your own methods, use recursion, etc.

      ps: what kind of class was this? Is this an after school program? Were the students self selected?

  • My daughter first played with Scratch a year or so ago. She is now eight and enjoyed the book when I got it for her a few months back.

    It should be a good companion for a Raspberry Pi as Scratch is one of the front-and-center educational apps on the default Raspberri Ubuntu distro (though running it definitely shows the speed limitations of the Pi).

    One advantage of a non-Internet-connected Pi, however, is that Sratch doesn't have to compete with the myriad distractions from Cool-math-games-for-kids to Barbie

  • So after investing 326 hours mastering Scratch. Where does one find a similar, more powerful language that builds upon what has been learned?

    • by slim ( 1652 )

      Scratch teaches the fundamentals of traditional imperative programming structures like variables, loops and branches, input and output. Because all the constructs are drag-and-drop, it's literally impossible to get a syntax error. That's a big deal for a 5-year-old.

      All of those concepts will carry forward to a text-based imperative programming language. Python seems like a good next step to me. For, say, a 7 year old who's got good at Scratch, Python is going to look:

      - faster to write and modify --

  • Ok so it looked kinda neat so I decided to try it last year. I spent a couple weeks on and off messing around with Scratch and yeah I had a bit of fun. I've been coding since 1980 so of course I just see Scratch as yet another syntax. I'm a clock nut, so the first thing I wanted to do was make a clock. Welp. To do that you need to know what time it is. Guess what? You need a new block to do that! I would've expected getting time and date would be a rather likely thing to include in the default set o

"The number of Unix installations has grown to 10, with more expected." -- The Unix Programmer's Manual, 2nd Edition, June, 1972