Four Lessons About Creative Computing

Contributed by Karen Brennan

I was a computer science (CS) major as an undergraduate. And although I learned a lot about computer science, I felt like I only really started to understand the magic, beauty, and creative power of computer science when I joined the MIT Media Lab as a doctoral student in 2007, becoming a member of the team that develops Scratch. Scratch which recently celebrated its 10th birthday, is a programming language and an online community; kids can create a wide variety of interactive media with Scratch—games, stories, animations, and more—and share their creations with a community of young designers from all around the world.

Over the past 10 years, first as a doctoral student at the Media Lab and now as a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I have been endlessly inspired by what children of all ages are able to create with Scratch, both in and out of school, and by how they talk about those experiences. From these young people, I have learned four lessons about computer science that I wish I had known as a CS major!

First: make with purpose. Whether you want to create a greeting card for your best friend, a report about animal rights after visiting a local animal shelter, or a game based on your favorite book, you will do your best work when your making is aligned with your passions and a sense of purpose. There are so many things you can create with code, and so many ways to make it your own. Start by figuring out what you care about, and let that guide your creative work.

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Three examples of Scratch projects: Valentine’s Day Card Maker by Cattyplyer, Stop Animal Abuse by candy_lizz, and Harry Potter Game by snoogybear65

Second: study the work of others. The endless possibilities can feel overwhelming, especially when you’re just getting started learning programming. Looking at examples can inspire you creatively and help you figure out how things work. There are more than 26 million projects posted in the Scratch online community. You can look inside any project to see how it was made, and you can build on someone’s project by “remixing” it. As Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

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Looking at the code for The Shadow Planet by -Proton-

Third: share, share, share. Don’t wait until you think a project is finished to share it. Although you might feel self-conscious, you will benefit enormously from sharing your creations early and often. On Scratch, you can share a project as a draft, letting others know that it is a work in progress, and ask for feedback, benefitting from others’ insights and ideas. Sharing work in draft form requires a kind of vulnerability that helps build connections in a creative community, with support shared among members of the community. When you receive helpful feedback, you’ll be inspired to reciprocate as you gain experience and insights—contributing to a virtuous circle of support. 

Finally: be persistent. What makes all creative work so thrilling—and so challenging—is the uncertainty, the adventure of the unknown. What is guaranteed, though, is that you will run into problems and you will need to debug your code and debug your thinking along the way to realizing your creative vision. The most valuable advice is to stick with it, keep at it, and be persistent. Each setback or failure forms the creative foundation upon which new ideas will be built. And you will draw inspiration from your past persistence in future creative endeavors. As one young Scratch creator shared, “When I finished my project I felt like I could do the unimaginable. Like I could do anything if I really tried.”

This CSEdWeek, I hope that all kids (and adults!) have opportunities to discover the magic and beauty of creative computing—computer science in the service of self-expression and problem-solving. If you’re interested in learning more about how we’re supporting creative computing through our work at Harvard, I invite you to explore our group’s resources at creativecomputing.gse.harvard.edu. Happy CSEdWeek!

 

Karen Brennan is an Associate Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.