A group of students at Penn Alexander are hacking parents’ classic warning that video games turn brains to mush.
In a course developed by Yasmin Kafai, a professor of teaching, learning, and leadership at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), a group of 12 sixth to eighth graders are working not only to understand how video games work, but to actually create the games themselves.
“The goal of the [coding] program is not to turn everyone into a programmer. It’s the same as teaching students to read and write—not everyone will become a great author or mathematician, but those are skills necessary to understand the world with which we interact,” Kafai says.
The project at Penn Alexander is part of an overarching series Kafai is developing on moving game design beyond the screen. In the course, students are involved in programming the game and incorporating physical extensions, reminiscent of Wii remote controllers and other tangible game components.
“All of these projects are part of a larger effort to extend how we can think about game design in a productive context,” Kafai says. “By moving into the physical world, we’re making it much more up-to-date, because ‘wearables’ are very much part of today’s digital media. Still, most kids know how to use them but hardly ever have the opportunity to make their own, understand the engineering and circuit design, as well as coding to connect to the physical world.”
The course is part of an elective series known as “choice activity” at Penn Alexander, in which students meet Tuesdays and Thursdays for roughly an hour. The coding course is led by Veena Vasudevan, a Ph.D. student at GSE with a focus on research.
Using Scratch—an educational programming tool originally developed by Kafai and now known as the YouTube of interactive media—Vasudevan has helped students develop games structured similarly to Flappy Bird, a popular side-scroller-style game in which users direct a bird through a series of pipes.
One student in Vasudevan’s course is working to create a game in which a cat is the main character, and the user must direct it to float through an obstacle course of carrots. Another has designed a game in which a character from Disney’s “Finding Nemo” darts his way through killer coral.
The first part of the course involved students using Scratch to learn the programming language and think about the design for their own customized Flappy Bird-style game. Students are currently immersed in the second phase, which will allow them to connect their games to “wearable” components.
The course concludes with an education arcade, where students from outside the coding course visit and test out the students’ games.
“That’s actually part of the learning experience because you see that what was obvious to the student designer may be really hard to figure out for someone else,” Kafai says. “It’s a learning process, and students can take the feedback they get to make modifications to their design.”
Going forward, Kafai says she is working on developing a more elaborate version of the course for high school students that will involve more complex coding.
“Technology surrounds us in all aspects of our lives,” Kafai says. “But right now, the large majority of kids have no experience whatsoever with programming. [Students] need that kind of preparation so they can make an informed decision, whether it’s really a technical area they want to pursue, or go to community college or university later on—and so that they can understand not just how to use technology, but what’s behind it.”