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Painting a picture of coding

December 15, 2022 No Comments

by Julie York

The top 20 most in-demand skills required by US organizations are all computer-science based. Industries globally continue to voice their concern over the lack of tech skills among high-school and college graduates. The skills gap is so large that with the right skills, students can almost walk out of school and into a highly lucrative career. However, despite the huge skills gap, computer science remains an elective in most schools across the US. Too many students never consider one of the vast range of computer science courses, simply because they feel it’s all about technology and science.

So how are we getting it so wrong?

Let me paint you a picture of how we’re addressing this issue at South Portland High School.

In my view, the issue lies in the way we present the computing-related electives.

When presented as a technical science, many students, particularly girls, immediately jump to the conclusion that it ‘isn’t for them’, ‘that’s a boy’s job’, or because ‘it’s too hard’ and ‘something for ‘techies’!

The reality is that CTE, including coding and game development, is not just a science-based based area of learning. It demands and involves a range of 21st century skills including critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation, problem-solving, initiative, professionalism, and global awareness.

I don’t believe that computer science should be classified as just a science or math class and am one of an increasing number of people who believe it also sits comfortably as an art.

The students need to have a picture in their mind of how they want their characters and the ‘game’ to look. Like painting, computer programming is a form of self-expression that is accessible to virtually anyone.

Whether they are picking up a pen to write a story or a description of what is in their head, selecting a brush to paint, or using their fingers on the computer keypad, they soon find that they are able to create something real that expresses their thoughts. 

Once a student appreciates that computer code is actually a tool for expression, such as websites, video games, and music, and realize that the foundations of coding are based on creativity, we start to see a lot more students electing it as a course of study.

Language

In my coding classes, I start the students off by using the appropriate language; asking them to consider the words that describe what they would like to create. I ask them to consider a game that they want to develop. Whether it is an adventure game, a fashion design game or a social networking site, they will start to realize that coding and game development is for everyone!  Like artists, computer programmers have a blank canvas and can fill it with something new and creative that excites them.

The next step is very ‘art based’: creating the characters.  No matter the gender, all students enjoy creating the animations and characters within their game. My female students also really love solving problems and working with other students. Many tend to lean towards art and the design aspects, but they also love to dig into the puzzle of creating the algorithm.

I then set them to work on building their idea, with an endless number of ways to get there.

Getting the right software

Many students arrive at our school having started their coding experience in Scratch. However, fully block-based programs have limitations. As students progress up from 8th to 9th Grades, it is common for them to start to grow out of block-based programming. Equally, text-based coding programs such as JavaScript and Unity can feel too complex and daunting. The result is a lot of students drop-out.

We have found that the solution is using game development programs like Construct 3 which offers both block and text-based programming, so children can transition through the stages of development. As the platform is also used in industry by organizations such as NASA, it’s the ideal way for students to learn through a program they might use in their career.

Thankfully Construct 3 offers highly functional free licences; we have only recently upgraded to the fee-paying version. It’s on the web so it’s easy to use in school and at home.

Conclusion

Changing the way we define coding and game development is proving to be highly effective.

Today, I have more students than I’ve ever had before, especially girls.  One of my students created their own dating app; they all find ways to create what interests them!

As educators, it’s our duty to inspire the next generation to problem-solve like developers and equip them with the tools they need.

Julie York holds the position of Career Preparation Department Chair, SMCC Concurrent Instructor, SPCTV-2 Educational Access Coordinator and SPHS Website Administrator at South Portland High School, Maine.

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