Meet Margarita Dekoli. Besides having a contagious laugh and a smile that goes from ear to ear, she’s a passionate member of FableVision’s technical team. With a strong background in computer engineering and developing software for learners, it’s no surprise that she ended up at FableVision.
“Being in the world of building software and games for learning, it was inevitable that I would find a home at an amazing, mission-driven company like FableVision,” Margarita shared.
From her early days working at M.I.T. to develop Scratch, a programming environment where the user creates its own interactive stories, games, and animations, Margarita drives to educate and empower students to think outside the box.
“I really enjoy working with kids as part of organized classes and workshops or even as ‘special appearance’ guest at my kids’ classrooms,” she explained
Can you share a bit about your background in programming?
I am from Greece, and after I studied computer engineering, I worked at a research institute, CTI, where I was introduced to the world of Logo and Constructionism, and created tools for engineers, researchers, teachers, and students to interact and build educational activities and microworlds. In 2001, I came to continue my studies at the M.I.T. Media Lab, where I developed software for kids to intuitively program animated color sequences on tri-color LEDs in electronic jewelry they were creating. I was also studying how they explain, represent and understand concepts of time. Following my masters, I worked with the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the M.I.T. Media Lab as part of the development team of Scratch.
Why is it important to introduce young kids to programming?
Today’s technological tools, the hardware devices, and games and software tools have enriched the space of rich, well-designed environments, where learners are able to explore, tinker, or play with different parameters and permutations. By allowing learners to write their own code, you allow them to be part of this exploration of what they are learning or building, and to refine their own thinking over time by trying out different scenarios and tweak existing ones.
Can you tell us a bit about your role with the Scratch team at the MIT Media Lab?
I was one of the developers of Scratch around 2003-2005, when Scratch went from a prototype to being ready to be released to the world. While developing the environment, we would experiment with additional functionality and additional blocks to see if they were a good match for the core environment (e.g. more image filters). The goal was always to have the right balance or economy of blocks so that the vocabulary would provide a finite yet powerful set of commands and functionality to the user. We would also do a lot of testing of Scratch during workshops in Computer Clubhouses around Boston and the projects created during that time, have helped seed the project library that now ships with Scratch.
Can you share one story – your favorite story – about teaching kids Scratch?
I recently ran an after school program for 4-6th graders on game design and how to build them in Scratch. One of the kids didn’t identify as a fan of any games. It was hard to find an idea for a game and I was getting to the end of my brainstorming questions.
Then, he brings out a book about art history, with bookmarked pages of famous painting around the world. He and another classmate worked together to build a game where students find portals behind famous paintings in the Louvre and travel back to the artist’s atelier [studio] and have conversations with them to learn more about the painting. It was great to see how an interest discovered in a book can become a game, a shared experience. Moreover, it empowered this kid to build the context for telling the painting’s story to his classmates, which was his goal.
You were the technical lead on After the Storm. Can you tell us a bit about that project?
After the Storm is a real world simulation online game that we built for Classroom, Inc. It targets middle schools students and focuses on reading and writing literacy. The student assumes the role of the editor-in-chief of an online magazine when their imaginary town, Port Douglas, has been struck by a hurricane. The student collects information from the staff and from the world, edits their staff’s materials, and chooses the way and format for disseminating helpful information to the community. The student’s progress is being tracked by a number of different class and individual student reports in the teacher dashboard section, for their teacher to monitor.
My favorite thing of the game is that it is a literacy game done well, in the sense that it presents the material in an engaging way, through dialogs, email, posters, and tweets, and has economical yet very sophisticated user interaction design.
Tell us also about working on the Nightmares! game and website?
I mainly worked on the You Snooze, You Looze game that lives in the website. The game is an endless runner game. Charlie, the main character of the book, runs up a staircase trying to avoid or collect objects, hurrying against time. The twist is that the terrain is in perspective, so there were complications on calculating varying sizes, speeds, and positions of the stairs and the objects.
More about Margarita:
What part of Greece are you from? What’s your favorite place to visit when you are there?
My hometown is called Ioannina, on the north west side of Greece, where I always visit with family. It is among mountains but also has a lake and a tiny – but inhabited – island! When in the mood for mountain views, I visit the Vikos Gorge in the mountain range close to my hometown. And when in the mood for the Mediterranean waters, I go to the coastline in Syvota close to the port of Igoumenitsa.
Favorite game to play with your kids: It is a moving target really, but these days we play a lot of card games.