Drop-in series: Design a game, learn programming

Inspired by Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University in which he shared how auditing a calligraphy class in college inspired him years later to add diverse fonts to Apple computers, we set out to visit classes around campus that make us think differently about what it means to be educated. This is one in a series of drop-ins.

What if your final exam were to create a video game? Sounds tantalizing, doesn’t it?

The good news is you don’t have to know anything about programming, and you don’t have to be a computer science major. All you have to do is sign up for COP 1000 Introduction to Computer Programming.

“My favorite part of the class is when I see students that start the class knowing nothing about programming and by the end, they come up with amazing projects that are so creative and such beautiful projects that are totally different from anything I’ve seen before,” says instructor Cristy Charters, who has been teaching the class since 2011.

In her class, Charters uses a program called Alice 3, which includes software developed by Carnegie Mellon University.

Alice is an environment that lets people learn basic programming concepts visually through storytelling. People use 3D characters and objects to create a story or a game by dragging and dropping commands.

Charters says by using the program, students learn logic and major components of computer programming, and they develop a solid background for future programming classes.

Junior information technology major Viancca Lagares says she had no programming experience when she came into the class the summer of 2015, but then she learned how she could use coding.

“I think it’s [the program] good because it ties in coding with visuals. Usually when you’re trying to learn coding it’s all abstract, and you don’t really understand what’s happening. With the visuals, it really helps to apply the idea.”

Lagares adds the class proved fun and beneficial for her future studies. “It really helped me understand Java. It got me to understand a lot of things that happen [in Java] and apply it to the next class. It was really good knowledge, and I’m really grateful for it.”

Part of the fun: Lagares says you can become the director of your game, choosing which objects and characters you want to include, how they will move and how the camera angles will capture the action.

A few examples of the Spring 2016 class projects: an educational animation showing different vertebrates, an animation of dancing panda bears and a video game in I-Spy style, in which users were invited to find a rabbit that hid among changing settings.

Isabel Rabalais, who took the class in spring of 2016, created a game in I-Spy style, in which users are asked to find a rabbit among different settings such as this icy scene.

Isabel Rabalais’ project was a game in which users are asked to find a rabbit among different settings such as this icy scene. Can you see the white rabbit? (HINT: There’s more than one!)

“[The class has] given me a way to experience programming,” says freshman computer science major Eduardo Morales. “It got me into a real-world sort of programming where you have to spend a lot of time programming everything, making sure everything is right.”

Morales, who took the class in Spring 2016, recalls his work for his midterm. “You run into a lot of problems, and you have to figure it out. I remember having difficulties making my character walk. You have to teach the character how to move. It was hard. [But] it walked.”

Arts student Michelle Rendon, who took the class with Morales, says she also felt a sense of accomplishment during the class.

“Doing the animations and seeing it happen [was my favorite part of the class]. When I first opened the program, I was like, ‘I don’t know what any of this means. Wow, I’m lost.’ It’s cool that now I know about this thing, and I can tell people about it. And it’s different.”

With many fields from business and marketing to entertainment increasingly relying on coding and data mining, dabbling in programming could prove beneficial, Charters says.

For those who are still wondering whether to try their hand at the class, Rendon says, “It’s just a fun class to take. If you want to get into it, just go ahead. It’ll be a learning experience.”