PlayWorthy: Seven ways to encourage students to pursue computing using game design

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by Becky Palmer-Scott
Editor, SpecialEdTech.net

Many students feel intimidated by the idea of learning computer programming, which is unfortunate considering all the high-paying computer science jobs out there. To help our students succeed, we need to break this mental barrier, and games are a great way to do it. This article lists seven ways to use games and game design to interest students in computer science, but there are many more resources. Check out code.org, code.org/learn, and csedweek.org/educate/cstechjam for more great ideas.

1. “Computer and Programmer” game

This is an entertaining exercise which requires no computer, but which teaches the first rule of programming, which is that you must tell a computer every single thing you want it to do.

Have one student be the programmer and another student be the computer. Tell the ‘computer’ to step out of the room, then have the programmer hide an object somewhere in the room. Let the computer back into the room, then tell the programmer to direct the computer to the hidden object, using only the instructions of how many steps to take and which way to turn.

2. Gamestar Mechanic

Gamestar Mechanic, which is geared toward 4th through 9th graders, does not teach computer programming, but it does teach how to create engaging online games, and is an entry-point to digital literacy, systems thinking, and online citizenship. It is browser-based, and is playable on any computer that can reach the Internet. It provides quite a few hours of instruction, and most students can go through the lessons without teacher help, so it works well for extracurricular activity or free time.

gamestar-mechanic

It is free for individuals. but if you want to set up a class and monitor student progress, you can do so for $2 per student. Gamestar Mechanic offers teaching materials which include an introduction to the pedagogy involved, how to navigate through the game, and how to use it in your class.

3. Scratch

scratchScratch is a well-known teaching tool usable by any student who can read, and it comes with terrific instructional materials. It introduces programming through blocks, similar to exercises on code.org, and is a precursor to Javascript. Scratch is easy to learn amd teach — just follow the instructions in the curriculum guide. It is browser-based, so it is usable on any computer that can reach the Internet, and it’s free. Click here for a variety of downloadable guides and workbooks, or here for a very excellent curriculum guide in PDF format.

4. MIT App Inventor 2

mit-app-inventorMIT App Inventor 2 teaches students how to build Android apps. It uses the same type of block programming as Scratch, but is a step up in terms of game sophistication and programming complexity. The tutorials can be followed by a programming novice, however.

With MIT App Inventor 2, students build their projects on a computer and then test them in real-time on their smartphones or tablets. To link the two devices, students will each need a Gmail account. If the student doesn’t already have one, Gmail accounts are free and easy to set up by going here and clicking “Create account.”

MIT App Inventor 2 is recommended for 6th graders and older. It takes a little extra effort to set up your class, but there is plenty of easy-to-follow documentation, and the lessons and games are well worth it. The program is free and browser-based, so you can use any kind of computer. To begin, go to http://appinventor.mit.edu/explore/get-started.html.

5. Kodu Game Lab

kodu-iconKodu Game Lab, created by Microsoft, lets kids create games on the PC and XBox using a simple visual programming language. It works on Windows computers, is free, and can be downloaded from here. Select KoduSetup.exe, click Next, and when prompted, permit the file to download. This may take a few minutes. When it is done, double-click KoduSetup.exe to install the file.

Kodu comes with helpful tutorials, which you can access after starting the program by selecting “Load World” from the splash screen menu.There is also a participant manual in PDF format which you can download from here. Kodu works best with XBox controllers, but a regular keyboard can be used.

6. Minecraft: Education Edition

minecraftMost people are aware of Minecraft, the extremely popular world-building game. As an educator, you can get Minecraft: Education Edition in your classroom for free as long as you have a valid school e-mail address. There is a lot of support for Minecraft in the form of a starter kit, training, and community. There are also ready-made lessons on a variety of topics, which you can find using the provided lesson filter. To date there are two lessons on computer science (Comp Sci), “Minecraft Boolean Logic” and “Introduction to Logic Gates.”

7. Unity – Game Engine

If you have students who are ready for higher-level programming instruction, you should introduce them to Unity. Unity is a game engine that many game development professionals use to create video games. Becoming adept at this program would be a real door-opener for an aspiring video game creator.

unity_3d_logo

Unity is free to download for individuals, and there are plenty of free tutorials and instructions to help users get started. There are tutorials at https://unity3d.com/learn, and a Unity manual is at https://docs.unity3d.com/Manual/index.html. An Internet search would reveal many other Unity videos, lessons, and documentation as well.

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