Cross-Curricular Connections: Exploring the "Winter Scene" Unit

21st century skills computer programming content library jr critical thinking cross-curricular connections geometry interdisciplinary instruction learning logical reasoning music problem solving programming project-based learning scratch song sound transferable skills Dec 22, 2023

This month’s unit feature focuses on our “Winter Scene” module in Content Library Junior. This module contains a variety of programming skills packed into one activity. Students work in Scratch, using not only the standard instructions that are found in this program, but also the Pen and Music extensions. These extensions add additional instructions and require learners to understand how to use geometry and music skills to enhance their program.

Drawing a Gift

In the first portion of this activity, students learn how to add the Pen Extension and use geometric skills to draw a present. To start, the module highlights how a present can be drawn by combining a large square and a smaller rectangle. Even before this, students need to understand that the Stage in Scratch is a coordinate plane, and where the sprite is positioned will affect where the shapes are drawn. Further, when drawing instructions are assigned to a sprite, the sprite begins drawing from the middle of the object. So, although it makes sense that a pencil draws from its tip, the pencil sprite actually will begin drawing where the middle of the pencil lies. This can be a tricky concept to understand, but once students begin using the Pen instructions, this becomes easier to visualize.

The Coordinate Plane

Understanding an object’s position on the coordinate plane will tap into the student’s knowledge of x- and y-coordinates. These instructions can be found in the Motion category of Scratch. Once a position is determined, the sprite can draw on the Scratch stage using the x- and y-coordinates. For example, the instruction change x by (10) will change the sprite’s position horizontally to the right 10 steps. Change x by (-10) will change the sprite’s position horizontally to the left 10 steps. Change y by (10) will change the sprite’s position vertically and up by 10 steps. Change y by (-10) will change the sprite’s position vertically and down by 10 steps.

Students use the knowledge that a square is made up of four equal sides and angles in addition to understanding x and y coordinates in order to program the drawing of a gift. First, coders draw the bottom portion of the gift, which is a square. Because squares have four 90 degree angles, the code needs to be repeated 4 times. Once the repeat loop is added, students are challenged to consider what instructions need to be repeated. A repeat loop is also called a for loop. The instructions inside a for loop will repeat a certain number of times. To draw a square, the pen needs to draw a line segment, turn 90 degrees, and then draw another line segment four times. Drawing a line segment requires moving a certain number of steps. Students will find these instructions in the Motion category of Scratch. Here, students are combining multiple mathematical skills as well as computer programming skills such as how to use loops.

The Importance of Specific and Ordered Directions

While all our activities stress the importance of using very specific, clear directions when writing code, using the Pen Extension reinforces this concept even more so. There are two instructions in this extension - pen up and pen down - which require coders to think very specifically about the directions required for drawing. If the pen is up and the programmer adds a repeat loop that contains turn and move instructions, nothing will actually be drawn on the screen. By contrast, if the pen is down and the programmer needs to move its location or draw a shape in a different area of the screen, the sprite will draw lines across the screen, as shown below, that are not actually intended to be part of the program.

In order to prevent unwanted lines or to ensure that the pen is actually drawing, students need to remember to lift the pen up or place it down when needed. They need to also consider the position to which they want the sprite to move in order to draw the next set of lines or shapes. The pen needs to be lifted, the sprite needs to move to a specific x- and y-coordinate, and then the pen needs to be placed down in order to draw. While this may seem to be a simple concept, this is one of the most common errors students make when coding a program like this because it is easy to put these steps in the incorrect order or to forget them altogether. So, using the Pen Extension reinforces the importance of including very specific and ordered directions in order to make a program run smoothly.

Exploring Music

There are a variety of ways to add music to a program in Scratch. Music can be written from scratch (no pun intended), uploaded from a device, recorded, or found in the Scratch library. Both the Music Extension and Sound category instructions make using any of these methods possible.

As a result, there are ways to increase the difficulty of this program, as well as to modify it further for newer learners. This unit explores how to write the song “Jingle Bells.” First, we help students understand how to use the Music Extension instructions to play specific music notes and to adjust the timing of a song. The number of beats can be changed within the instructions. Musical notes are written in the form of numbers. When clicking on a number bubble in a play note (60) for (0.25) beats instruction, a keyboard appears on the screen.

This keyboard helps the learner see to which music notes the numbers refer. So here, 64 will play an E note. Students need to be able to read sheet music or to look at letter musical notes and determine which numbers are needed to play the melody. Then, the beats portion of the instruction can be adjusted to match the song. This will require understanding how to count beats in a song, while incorporating decimals and fractions. It would make sense that 0.25 beats would equal a quarter note, but in Scratch, a quarter note is equal to 1 beat. So, learners need to be able to listen and count the beats, as well as use this conversion system, to understand how to change the decimal to match the melody.

Because the melody of Jingle Bells is repeated, programmers can write a function using the MyBlocks category in Scratch. A function is a set of instructions that can be used multiple times in a program without having to be rewritten. Once the instructions are written one time as part of the function, the function can later be called by writing its name (in a text-based language) in the code or adding the function block (when using block coding). 

Therefore, using the Music Extension is an excellent way to provide an enrichment opportunity for students. But if your learners are not quite ready for this level of programming, there is also an opportunity to modify this unit using the Sound category. We explore how to download music files and upload them in Scratch. Then, the student would simply need to add a when [green flag] clicked instruction from the Events category paired with a play sound ( ) until done instruction from the Sound category to play a song. There are even sound clips already recorded in the Scratch library that students can use!

Let’s say you want to make the program simpler than using the Music Extension, but more challenging than uploading a song. While we do not go into these methods in this program, you could also teach your learner how to record their own song using the Sound category. So, there are a variety of ways you can incorporate this program into your child’s learning or into your classroom.

 Combining It All

All our units contain cross-curricular skills, combining skills from various academic areas with programming skills. This means that regardless of the activity you choose for your students, they will be tapping into more than one specific set of skills when working with our Content Library units. 

In Winter Scene, students learn how to work with musical notes and count beats in a song. Learners also use multiple mathematical skills, such as working with coordinates and using knowledge of angles in shapes to create pictures. Throughout the entire unit, students are of course learning programming as well. From functions to repeat loops to instructions and skills in this program that we did not necessarily mention in this post, students learn and reinforce a variety of coding abilities that are used often by programmers. 

So, why is using a combination of skills so important? In a world where so much is easily accessible with a quick Google search or the touch of a button, and while there are times where this is a positive thing, it also can cause our learners to lose the ability to problem solve effectively. Attention spans and creativity diminish when the answers are always readily available. It is important to teach our students how to struggle (to an appropriate extent) and remain persistent in their efforts to solve a problem.

Additionally, if we teach subjects in isolation, students do not always recognize that to problem solve, they must use a variety of skills. As a child, I remember often telling my parents “..but that’s not how we learned to do this at school!” when they would offer their advice on homework or projects. If I was working on a math problem, I needed to use a specific method to solve the problem. In reality, though, when we problem solve, we use a combination of the skills and knowledge we have to solve the challenge to the best of our ability. All our units teach students how to do just that - solve the problem - using a mixture of skills to get there.

To get your students started with this unit and others that promote STEM thinking, be sure to head to our website and sign up for a free trial of our Content Library.

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