Students who spent years avoiding lessons with under-the-table Game Boys will turn as green with envy as Yoshi when hearing about the curriculum in Scott Walker’s eighth-grade technology course at Bate Middle School. There, video games are the lesson, the problem and the solution.
Students in the first-year course are combining math and science concepts with computer programming skills to create unique video games with movable parts and active “characters.”
Currently, the star of their games is a ball that falls and bounces according to the velocity and acceleration formulas they enter. But after creating a digital demonstration of Newton’s laws of motion, students will finish the year by creating their own game or developing an application for a tablet or phone.
Some of the 16 students will do both. Some may do more. As Walker noted, the possibilities are as seemingly endless as cyberspace.
“We’re still exploring the ceiling for this and what the kids are capable of,” he said. “Usually you’re trying to get the kids to a certain level, but here, we’re trying to figure out how high that level is.”
The idea for a video game programming course arose two years ago during the Danville Kids University program. During the Saturday sessions, district instructors worked with professors from the University of Kentucky to teach kids in third through fifth grades a video game software called Scratch. The program developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology allows students to build games without mastery of complex coding, Walker said.
“I can teach the concepts of programming without the barrier of having to teach a programming language first,” he said.
The pilot venture went so well that Walker pitched a course for eighth-graders that would begin with Scratch and eventually introduce a program called Java used by professional game designers and programmers.
"You're working with a computer that only understands math, and you have to be that translator," he said. “When I said, ‘We can teach math and science though games design,’ (administrators) jumped on it.”
Students did the same. Many, like Austin Franklin, 13, and Journee Brown, 13, admitted their avid gamer status initially drew them to the course. But Austin — who hopes to one day design a first-person shooter game like Call of Duty — said the class gives him immediate enjoyment and a leg up on future competition.
“I think it will really help my career because I’m only in eighth grade, and I’m learning how to do this before a lot of people,” he said.
Sierra Smith, 13, doesn’t play video games often enough to have a favorite but said Walker’s class still piqued her curiosity and already has exceeded her expectations with the focus on programming skills.
She said the hands-on style also allows students to take an active and in-depth approach to their learning.
“I like it better in here,” she said. “When somebody tells you how to do something, it’s not as easy to understand as when you do it yourself.”
Micha Logan, 14, agreed as he designed his Newton’s laws game on a basketball court background. He and several other students had completed Walker’s basic assignment Wednesday and were beginning to venture further into Scratch’s functions.
Walker sees these opportunities for students to move at their own pace as a major advantage of the course.
“Every single kid is on a different level right now,” he said. “I love to encourage that, especially with exploration.”
Walker said his greatest wish for his students is that they can continue studying programming independently using the fundamentals of his course.
“I hope that I’ve at least given them the tools and skills to find out what they need to know,” he said. “If they’ve got the self motivation to continue learning, I think we will have succeeded.”