Game on

Oak Park students bring imaginations to life on computer screens

By HANNAH JOHNSON – Stillwater Gazette

Students at Oak Park Elementary are bringing their imaginations to life.

Whether they are magical forests or underwater worlds, students’ dreams are becoming a reality on their computer screens. Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) students are part of a pilot program that has fourth- and fifth-graders creating video games.

Toby Velte, a Microsoft employee and parent living in the Stillwater school district helped jumpstart the Kodu Gaming Lab Pilot with GATE teacher Nick Ardito. Microsoft offers a list of academic programs and Velte thought Ardito would be interested in the video game program. If the pilot goes well at Oak Park, it could potentially move to other schools in the district, Velte said.

The program utilizes Kodu, a visual programming language that is accessible for children. The programming language is simple and entirely icon-based. Students compose pages of programming to create their own worlds, characters and challenges.

"The kids get a quick introduction to programming and since it’s a video game the kids are really engaged," Velte said.

Velte co-teaches the class with Ardito, outlining the programming structure and the tools students can use to create their video game.

Three groups of students in GATE work on the video game pilot for two weeks each. This week a new group of students began their work on creating their games from scratch. Velte illustrated ways students could create trees, apples, castles, mountains, valleys, lakes, walls or anything else students had in mind.

Students need to think about logistics as they create their worlds. For instance, if they create water then they need to create sides to keep the water enclosed, otherwise the water will flood the entire world – which a pair of fourth-graders learned early on in the class.

"Oops! We accidentally flooded our land," Nathaniel Willius told his gaming partner, fellow fourth-grader Joseph Young.

"It’s kind of cool because we have to make everything exact or it won’t work right," Young said.

The video game pilot is fun, but it also teaches students what programming is all about.

"They also learn and appreciate all the different components that make a good game," Velte said. "A lot of it is generating a story and a lot of kids start off thinking it’s just about guns and explosions, but it’s about creating a compelling story."

A compelling story includes great characters, an enriched environment and there tends to be a challenge or goal, Velte said.

Students also learn the standard "if and then" components of creating a game. For fifth-graders Hunter Kahn and Evan Dybvig, their "if and then" scenarios go something like this: If the character reaches the end of the labyrinth and take the coin then they go on to the second world. Once in the second world, if the character destroys the canons then the character can jump. Once the character can jump it moves on to the arena where it must fight the final canon.

"I think labyrinths are really cool and I just watched the movie of a labyrinth," Kahn said.

Kahn and Dybvig’s video game has pages, or layers" of their world.

"We have four different pages of programming for our game," Dybvig said.

The pair was among the first group of students who participated in the pilot.

Students are allowed to take their games home on a flash drive. They can also play their games using an Xbox 360 or a PC. The software for the program is free, but the pilot required 10 laptop computers. The district made the purchase through donations from Microsoft employees, Velte said.

"The kids are really getting into this," Velte said. "They are coming in from recess and parents are even coming in to see how it works."