South Fayette students teach computer program to teachers in the Mars Area School District

Published Feb 27, 2013 at 1:05 pm (Updated Feb 27, 2013 at 1:05 pm)

Four South Fayette Middle School students found themselves on the other side of the desk recently when they had the opportunity to teach the computer program “Scratch” to teachers in the Mars Area School District. Scratch, an open-source software developed by the MIT Media Lab, allows students to use blocks of code to program and animate their own cartoons or make video games.

The students who taught the program include eighth-graders Sam Cohen and Breanna McCann and seventh-graders Megan Broyles and John Barrett. During two sessions on Feb. 18, the students taught a total of nearly 40 second-through eighth-grade teachers in the Mars Area School District the basics of designing both a cartoon and a video game using Scratch.

Cohen and McCann focused on teaching the “students” how to design their own take on the old Atari video game, Frogger. Cohen said he focused on adding features to the game and coding, while McCann focused on setting up the game and positioning the coordinates needed to make it work.

Broyles and Barrett taught the Mars Area teachers how to make a cartoon, including how to add thought bubbles to their cartoon – which was a blue dog – and sound using different codes.

All four of the students were selected to help teach Scratch after excelling on an art project last year. Last year, Scratch was embedded into the fifth, sixth and seventh grade art curriculum through Diane Lally, middle school art teacher. District Technology Director Aileen Owens said students created their “own unique interactive fairy tales using blocks of code to animate characters, adding sound effects, and in some cases narration and music.” This year, three after-school Scratch clubs were implemented for students in the district.

Cohen said the assignment was to create a story or fairytale using Scratch. Since then, Cohen said he’s “pretty much mastered” the program and is now working with programs like Game Maker and also makes applications for Android devices.

The teaching session at the Mars Area District wasn’t the first time the four students had to speak in front of a large group of adults. In November, they became the first students in the history of the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC) to deliver a 90-minute workshop on Scratch to educators and board members. The group also taught the South Fayette School Board how to use the program at a recent meeting, and they teach more than 60 third and fourth grade students how to use Scratch at an after-school club.

“I don’t get nervous,” Broyles said, noting that after she prepared for speaking at TRETC, she is fine speaking in front of groups.

Middle School Principal Dave Deramo added that the district puts a lot of emphasis on public speaking, starting at the elementary level. “I get a lot of compliments about how the students speak,” he said.

“It’s a fun way to learn about problem solving,” Broyles said. “It goes along with other things in life.” She added that when there’s not a teacher around to help, she can use her problem-solving skills to figure out an assignment.

Barrett likes Scratch because kids can learn from it and it doesn’t feel like work. “It helps with public speaking,” Barrett said. He is currently taking seventh grade public speaking at school and he feels like he’s ahead of the game in that class.

Cohen agreed that the public speaking skills he’s learned are helpful. He likes how he can “get the audience to work with you.” Cohen said that learning the program and being a part of the team that teaches it helps him “learn how to be a leader.”

Broyles said she “never imagined speaking in front of such a big crowd.” But, she added, “People appreciate it and ask us to come back.”

“I like teaching,” Cohen said. “It builds skills for life. He wants to be a programmer when he is older, and takes advantage of any opportunity he can to teach.

McCann said that teaching Scratch started with the TRETC convention and “kind of blew up” after that. “It was unexpected – but good,” she said. She wants to be a fashion editor for a magazine and said what she’s learned through Scratch and teaching will be helpful in her career. She said she wants to “make fashion more available through technology.”

Owens said she’s really enjoyed “watching them grow as a team. They’ve gotten really close.”

The students have been invited back to the Mars Area School District to teach to other groups.

After the recent sessions with the teachers at the Mars Area School District, Owens said, “One of the teachers asked if our students would come to her classroom and teach Scratch to her fourth-graders. She mentioned that students are very receptive to peer teaching, because they more easily understand how other students communicate. She sees some great opportunities in developing this relationship.”

Owens added that another Mars teacher said she would rate South Fayette’s students as “some of the best presenters they have had at an in-service.” She said the teachers enjoyed being taught by students because “they have a very nice delivery, they were sincere and non-threatening and there was a very nice tone to the training.”

In addition to the Mars district, Owens said South Fayette is in talks to partner with other districts for similar teaching opportunities.

The Scratch program can be downloaded for free at

comments powered by Disqus