STEM challenges teens to create computer games

For all the talk going on in today’s world about encouraging women to become more involved in science and technology, there hasn’t always been an equivalent amount of action.

At the all-girl Stuart Country Day School in Princeton, teachers – one in particular – are all about action. Most adults today probably did not do much computer programming in eighth-grade, but at Stuart eighth-graders are designing and programming their own computer games.

The project is part of the National STEM Video Game Challenge, a competition born from President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign, which aims to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and promote interest in STEM among youth.

The STEM challenge asks middle school students and high school students to create computer games on any topic. In the collegiate and educator categories, entrants are asked to create computer games that teach STEM skills to kids.

This is the second year of the challenge, which was launched for the first time in September 2010. Alicia Testa, a mathematics and computer science teacher at Stuart, said she knew about first iteration of the challenge.

“We had heard about it before,” she said. “We had it on the back burner.”

Then, Testa said, the PBS KIDS network – a new sponsor for the challenge this year – heard about Stuart’s commitment to teaching STEM skills and contacted the school to see if it might be interested in the PBS KIDS’ “stream.”

Kids participating in the stream are required to design games that specifically reinforce basic math skills for children ages 4-8.

Testa explained the challenge to her eighth-grade students, some of whom she said were doubtful about the project, having had little programming experience.

Since then the girls have become much more assured.

“I’ve watched their self-confidence grow,” Testa said.

To create their games, the girls used Scratch, a simplified programming language that allows users to drag and drop boxes with commands. The boxes are designed to fit together only when they are syntactically correct, so that syntax errors are not a problem.

The language aims to serve as an intuitive, engaging introduction to programming.

It certainly seems to have inspired the enthusiasm of Testa’s eighth-graders.

The first few days of the project, Testa said, the students watched tutorials to get a basic idea of how Scratch worked. Then the girls buckled down to work.

“The first time we made something,” said student Pamela McGowan, “it was like a big deal.”

Called “King Arthur Quest,” McGowan and teammate Elizabeth Sochka’s game tests players on skip counting and pattern recognition.

In the game, King Arthur has disappeared and the player is sent on a quest to find him.

Correctly solving each math problem eventually leads the player to King Arthur, earning the thanks of Merlin, who declares the player a Knight of the Round Table and an honorary citizen of Camelot.

The story behind the game, McGowan explained enthusiastically, came about through an unusual brainstorming process.

“We just came up with the weirdest ideas we could and picked the best,” she said.

But McGowan and Sochka seemed to get just as excited talking about other teams’ games as about their own.

“My sister and some of her friends have a race-car game,” said McGowan.

She explained the viewpoint of the player is from inside a car. Correctly solving basic math problems moves the car forward, while incorrect answers move it backward.

The class began in mid-January, Testa said, and since entries for the challenge were due March 12 (the deadline was later extended to March 23), using their time wisely during class became very important.

Being on a time constraint, Testa said, was a good way for the girls to learn about being flexible and adaptable. As the deadline approached, she said, some of the teams realized that their game as they had envisioned it was too complex or too long, and were forced to adjust their project to a more manageable scale.

Despite the lack of time, the girls responded so well to the challenge that they found extra time outside of the prescribed class time to work on their games.

“Class officially ended two weeks ago,” Testa admitted. “I took over their study halls.”

That Testa’s students don’t seem put out by the appropriation of their study halls is a testament to the ability video games have to inspire enthusiasm for computer science (it’s also a testament to Testa herself).

And the benefits of the challenge don’t stop there.

The project also helped improve the students’ organizational skills, as the girls had to determine the theme and flow of the game before beginning, and since the kids worked in teams of two and  three, they also improved in their teamwork skills.

Having minimal direction allowed students to practice problem solving and to exercise creativity in the creation of the game.

This, Testa said, was a great part of the experience.

“It’s them being able to voice their own opinions,” she said. “They can say what they want to do.”