Getting young people interested in computer science in a digital age in which technology advances faster than teaching resources is a challenge, but also an opportunity for creativity. I’ve found the best way to engage students and inspire a love of learning is to tailor lesson plans to their interest, and what young person doesn’t like video games?
With this in mind, I developed a project for my students to design and code their own video games to be presented at a tech fair-style expo. Enter NEXT, or the Newington Expo of Technology.
The project was intended to help accomplish three primary goals: build students’ digital skill sets, break down misconceptions about the computer science industry, and guide them to think in new and inclusive ways. The reason for the first of these goals was that, by equipping students of all backgrounds with strong digital skill sets, I could set them up to succeed and have social mobility in a predominantly digital workforce. The second goal was key for me and my teaching, wherein I aimed to break down tired stereotypes around who can or should be a computer scientist, and empower a new generation to transform the industry by first transforming my classroom. Finally, the third goal I accomplished by opening with a lesson in universal design, which taught students to consider the potential needs and interests of users of all backgrounds, abilities and demographics, and create an inclusive video game for a diverse audience.
I have found it increasingly important to help students understand the world around them and how their games will be received. It is one thing to create a video game, but another to create something that all types of players can enjoy, so I encouraged my students to consider the diverse kaleidoscope of backgrounds and experiences their users would have, and particularly what features might be needed for players with disabilities.
Ideas that came out of this inquiry included the creation of color-blindness settings for those with visual impairments, researching terms and phrases that may reference historically controversial topics, and the use of multiple control schemes to support users with physical limitations. As students explored these concepts, they began to realize that game development — and by extension, computer programming and technology design — isn’t just about making games, but about understanding the world, its people and their perspective on it. At this point, the late computer science professor Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University would say I reveal the “head fake” — that a lesson in one thing was really a lesson in something else. The lesson was not really about making video games, although we did; it was about creating empathetic and world-wise people who will consider their place and how to effectively navigate our evolving world.
Following this lesson, students broke out into small groups to brainstorm their video game ideas and start designing characters, settings and controls. When they were ready to start coding, I gave them a brief demo of the online game-design platform Construct 3. Given that most of my students had never coded before, I chose the platform based on its intuitive design that combines block- and text-based coding, which is easy for beginners to learn, as well as the fact that it is browser-based and works on Chromebooks, so students can work from anywhere without downloading new software. These two points were crucial for the project to ensure it was both unintimidating and accessible to all students.
Once students had an early — or as we say in computer science, “beta” — version of their game designed, they enlisted classmates to test it and provide feedback. This feedback gave them an authentic audience experience that ensured their games were relevant and engaging, and allowed them to further refine and polish their projects ahead of the final expo. When the day of the expo arrived, a buzz fell over the school. Students excitedly set up their stands and got ready to present their games to a cafeteria full of classmates. While NEXT was surefire at accomplishing my three key aims, it loaned itself to two more: instilling even more career-ready skills, such as presenting to an audience, and sparking interest in other students to get involved with computer science once they saw how easy and exciting it could be.
As a computer science teacher, I’ve learned that students will always engage with material that encourages creativity and explores themes that interest them, which can come from pushing the boundaries of traditional technology lessons. Through NEXT, my students excelled at building and developing digital skills in the classroom to prepare them for life in a digital workforce. But what I am truly proud of is how it transformed their understanding of computer science by learning how game design relates to diversity and inclusion, and the role they can play in breaking down misconceptions within the industry to inspire young people of all backgrounds to consider computer science. I can only hope that sharing the joy this has brought me and my students might inspire others to do the same!
Christopher Kerr is a computer science teacher at Newington High School, Conn.