DeRenne Middle students get lesson in video game development

Article on Savannah Now by Julia Ritchey.

In the hierarchy of things middle schoolers care about most, video games are arguably near the top. A new program being launched for the first time this year in Savannah is attempting to teach lower-income and at-risk youths that while playing video games after school can be fun, learning to build and create those games can be even more empowering — and, who knows, could one day even lead to a fulfilling career. Juwan Platt is the community engagement liaison with 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a federally funded grant that provides after-school programming at 17 sites in Savannah for children of low-income households. The nonprofit offers courses in poetry, photography, dance and, for the first time this year, a game development class through Google’s CS First program, geared toward increasing student exposure to computer science education. Google’s program launched in South Carolina in August 2013 and has since spread to other schools across the country, with free online classes targeting after-school students in grades four through eight. “We’re focusing on game development because that’s what our kids are into and that’s what they like,” said Platt. Proving Platt’s point, a group of about five seventh graders trudged into a computer lab classroom at DeRenne Middle on Wednesday looking like they were ready to be bored — that is until he asked them this question: “What are some of your favorite video games?” The class lit up and hands shot up as they shouted out popular games like “Call of Duty,” “Grand Theft Auto” and “Assassin’s Creed.” One student lamented the loss of one his favorites, “Flappy Bird,” whose developer discontinued the game earlier this year. “If you had to sit down and make Grand Theft Auto V, what would you need to make it?” Platt asked the kids. He started making a list on the white board as some of the students shouted answers: animation, a disk, graphics, a desktop computer. Platt said they would need one more thing, a fundamental building block for any game of any type, and did anyone know what that was? One student’s hand went up. “Violence,” said James Washington, a seventh grader. The room broke into laughter — he did have a point. But no, the real building block to any of these seventh graders’ favorite games is code, that special language used by computer programmers to make software, apps and, yes, adrenaline-filled video games. The concept seemed to click for the kids. They log into their computers, open up the Google CS program, take a short survey and begin playing around with the free beginner programming language known as “Scratch.” They drag and drop actions and commands into a script window to manipulate the movements, color and environment of a small animated cat on the left side of their screen. Several audible “meows” ring out from the kids’ speakers. Seventh grader Justin Carter figures out how to superimpose a basketball court as the background for his animation and gets up to help the other kids in the class change theirs too. “I want these kids to show improvement because it’s not something being done for this demographic,” said Platt. He said having a popular brand like Google attached to it makes it even more attractive to students. The self-guided curriculum is made up of eight classes, which Platt and a co-volunteer will break up into two classes each week for four weeks. At the end, Platt hopes the DeRenne students will be able to display some of their games during an arcade showcase at The Creative Coast’s Geekend conference being held Nov. 13-15. As the first half-hour class winds down, the kids turn in their headphones and submit their first animations. Next week, Platt says, they’ll be making a racing game. In the room, an audible “yesss” from some of the kids.
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