Gaming and Coding – a STEAM Experience

I won’t give you the whole, boring story, but a couple of us at the Office of Instructional Technology were tapped by Tina Stevenson and the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) Academy to provide technology-rich experiences for a portion of the students there these first few weeks of January. I quickly volunteered, since 1) I do tire of being a desk jockey, and 2) I miss working directly with students. Since I have past programming experience, I volunteered to do a weeks’ worth of coding instruction using some of the online environments available for such.

The students were freshmen and sophomores, but were otherwise all over the map. The overwhelming majority of the students are not code monkeys, or even code monkey code.orgwanabes (though a few were). I had exactly 5 hours with the students over a week. I started out slowly, leveraging code.org’s K-8 Intro to Computer Science, which teaches javascript through drag/drop code-building. Although it was useful, and did a good job of prepping students for bigger things, it was, well, a little boring, and definitely aimed at younger students. We then leveraged that to leap to a much more sophisticated environment.

Agent Cubes is also a drag/drop coding environment, but in contrast to code.org’s tutorial, it focuses on event vs. linear coding – capturing things that are happening on screen and input from the user, and doing things based on that, rather than just writing a sequence of steps for a computer to execute. Beyond the gaming slant, this much more closely matched the interests and abilities of this age group.

Several observations about my experience teaching this environment:

  • We had a blast! The environment is 3-D, and although graphically pretty crude, provides a very flexible visual environment for the experience.
  • Agent Cubes screen shotThe “lite” version is available both as a free download, and fully online. You must register to use the online version (no way to save without it), but that wasn’t a problem for this age group.
  • The “lite” version doesn’t give you a lot of controls, but there’s plenty there to build a fully-functional 3-D game.
  • The environment provides the ability to draw 2-D images, and “inflating” them to 3-D objects for use on the game canvas.
  • Although the code objects are very easy to drag/drop and get things moving, you still have access to Booleans, passed function parameters, and a lot of other things usually only available directly through the underlying code. As aagent Cubes Online projects result, the thing scales great between beginner and more advanced coders.
  • Like MIT’s Scratch, all student projects created online are freely displayed and browsable, and can be played, cloned, and repurposed.

In the classroom, I enjoyed the engagement and participation of a wide range of students. Not surprisingly, some of the traditional “geeky” boys really rose to the occasion. But the standout performers were quiet, hard-working girls, who not only “got” the visual environment, but the underlying logic as well. Several participants pushed the code to places which my limited experience hadn’t noted yet.

But, of course, the real winner was me. I was completely energized by it all, and had a great time with these wonderful STEAM kids!

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