Oct 30 2007

Mixing Programming With Science

The latest version of this MIT software encourages students to learn through their own simulations.

The latest version of this MIT software encourages students to learn through their own simulations.

In today’s world, computer literacy is a required skill, just like the ability to read, write and do arithmetic. Students are fluent in many aspects of this literacy, as evidenced by their participation in social networking communities, their ability to communicate with each other electronically and the ease with which they navigate the information space of the Web. Most tech-literate students have a big gap in skills, however.

While this age group may live online, few are able to use computer programming to create interactive content. Looking to marry youth’s love of video games with the ability to teach programming, the team at MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program (TEP) went to work.

StarLogo’s Improvements

For many years the MIT TEP team, along with the MIT Media Lab, has worked on StarLogo, a programming environment to help students and teachers explore simulations.

Now the MIT TEP has created a new version of the free software, StarLogo: The Next Generation. This version provides two important supports not previously available. First, programs are created with graphical programming blocks instead of text-based commands. Because the blocks are shaped like puzzle pieces, blocks can fit together only in syntactically sensible ways. This eliminates a significant source of program bugs that students encounter.

StarLogo TNG’s second significant advance is a 3-D representation of the game play world. This provides the ability to think and model beyond two dimensions, and allows students to take the perspective of an individual character in the environment, which helps them bridge the description of individual behaviors with system level outcomes.

In the classroom, StarLogo TNG mixes the power of science and engineering computer simulations with video games. This allows StarLogo TNG to reach the regular curriculum, not just computer classes.

StarLogo TNG is already being used in a variety of venues. Neil McCurdy, a teacher at San Diego’s High Tech High, says, “I have 100 percent engagement, the kids all seem to mostly understand it.”

“Watching students collaborate as they use StarLogo TNG to create games that accurately reflect laws of physics reminds me why I feel so passionate about technology as a learning tool,” says Aaron Mandel, a school technology coordinator at the Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Mass. “The students are fully engaged with material that is relevant to them, have creative control, and are ferociously motivated to find creative solutions to complex problems.”

StarLogo TNG is now available for free in beta release at education. mit.edu/starlogo-tng.

Making Programming Easy

To the right is an example of how this software’s color-coded blocks make it impossible to misprogram a task. The blocks on the left of this screen define the program for movement of a car. On the far right is the 3-D view showing the car moving down the highway, trying to avoid the wildlife that darts across the road. Students must program the physics for the car to make sure that it accelerates and decelerates correctly.

More On