Students use video games to learn problem-solving skills

September 4, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

Video games at school sounds like the dream of many teenagers, but for many in the Issaquah School District designing and having them in the classroom became a reality last year.

Through a partnership between the district and Microsoft, students taking “Introduction to Computer Science” last spring at Skyline, Issaquah and Liberty high schools got to design, program and ultimately play video games, all in the name of learning. And starting this year, the course will also be offered at Tiger Mountain Community High School.

For Kevin Houghton, math and engineering teacher at Issaquah High, this was the first time video games made an appearance on his syllabi.

“A lot of these kids, good or bad, go home after school and plunk down in front of an Xbox,” he said, explaining that when Microsoft offered to buy the class a set of Xbox Kinects, he was excited. “Kids need stimuli. They are not just going to sit there and listen to an hour-long lecture … pretty soon they were making video games and the kids were just pumped.”

Classes took part during the first hour of the school day and got help from volunteer software professionals, who gave instruction under the supervision of the certified teacher.

At Skyline, Colin Miller, of Sammamish, who during the day is a product unit manager at Microsoft, walked students step-by-step through the process of programming their own versions of classic games like “Mario,” “Pong” and “Galaga.” With objectives like creating an annotated character that responds to keyboard clicks, the students used Scratch, a programming language that allows beginners to dive in without having to learn the rules, like putting a semicolon at the end of every line, Miller explained.

“It also helps kids to not feel intimidated by these things,” he said. “I got the comment that, ‘OK, now I realize that this isn’t impossible to learn.’ It breaks down those barriers and gives those kids the exposure to computer science.”

In Houghton’s classroom at Issaquah High, students were split into groups of four. While each team was given a different theme, the requirements were the same. Each game had to have a menu and help screen; it had to be timed and built for two players; using the Kinect it had to respond to body movements; there needed to be a point system — the list goes on.

“It was really just about tying all these concepts together: human-computer interaction, graphical parts, the logic itself,” said Michael Hawker, of Microsoft, who volunteered at Issaquah High. “A major issue in computer science is ‘How do you break the problem down into these little bits so that they can be run at the same time?’

“It was pretty involved. It was a huge project but a lot of fun.”

In the end, students developed video games like one where players moved their arms around to steer a helicopter through approaching rings. In another game, the goalie has to block incoming soccer balls that, over time, increase in numbers and speed. Other game themes included a bat cave, a food fight, math and fishing.

“These kids were hit pretty hard with the fact that it’s cool but it’s pretty hard. You have to take care of a lot of details. You don’t just click the button and shoot a monster,” Houghton said.

Many of his students, he added, learned a valuable lesson that most don’t figure out until college.

“I talked to a lot of them who finished the class and thought, ‘This is so great. I am going to do this a profession’ and some said, ‘Wow, this is not what I thought it would be.’”

And that’s OK with Miller and Hawker, who volunteered in the classrooms through the TEALS (technology, education and literacy in schools) program, put in place by techies to help students develop an interest in computer science.

“It’s just a staggering number difference between the demand for the field and the people going into it,” Hawker said. “Even if you’re not going into computer science, it’s such an interesting skill set in terms of problem-solving and reasoning and how you tackle these problems that it makes sense for these other fields.”

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