July 25, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

At Calvin's Imaginary Worlds computer camps, local kids are learning the basics of computer programming by making video games.

On the screen at the front of the room, the cat was getting across the road too easily despite the big blue dog and the automobile traffic. At the console across the room, computer science professor Joel Adams was trying to slow the cat’s progress by programming the cow car—a race car painted to look like a Holstein—to cross the screen with a little more speed and unpredictability.

“Randomness is our topic of the day,” he announced to the seven young women seated in the classroom. “If you find your game is too simple, too predictable, you can introduce some randomness, and that will make it more interesting and challenging to play.”

Adams was demonstrating a game he made via Scratch, a program invented by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. Scratch teaches the basic skills of computer programming, and the seven girls were learning Scratch via the “Imaginary Worlds Camp,” one of Calvin’s Academic Camps for Excellence (ACE).

Programming from Scratch

“A lot of the basic concepts you need to learn to be a computer programmer, you can learn at this age,” said Adams, “and when they take an AP computer science class or a college course, they’ll see those same basic concepts in a different context.”

This Imaginary Worlds Camp welcomed young women from area middle and high schools, who spent the week of the camp creating and fine tuning their own computer games. Calvin also hosted an Imaginary Worlds Camp for 23 sixth-through-12th-grade boys the previous week.

Midway through the girls’ camp, 11-year-old Evelyn Pae, a sixth-grader at Central Woodlands School in Ada, Mich., was using Scratch’s “paint” feature to create the hamster (based on her pet hamster “Julie”) that would star in her game. “The hamster goes into a portal, and the game's different levels are different worlds, where cats and dogs chase it,” Pae described her game, titled “Interworld Travel Hamster Style.”

Nearby, Madeleine Meyer, an 11-year-old student from East Grand Rapids Middle School, was navigating a horse on a sleigh across an expanse of ice (and around the water holes) to reach Mackinac Island. (“Her code is some of the most organized I’ve seen, and she’s in sixth grade,” Adams commented.)

“It’s fun and sort of easy to understand,” said Meyer about creating games from Scratch. Her dad is a computer programmer, but Meyer isn’t sure she wants to be one. “I like to do a lot of art and design and stuff like that, but I also like dancing,” she said. Pae would like to be an illustrator.

According to Adams, there is a marked difference in the types of games created in the two Imaginary Worlds Camps. “A higher percentage of the girls will create puzzle-solving games. There tends to be more of a story to their projects; they tend to be more character driven—where the boys tend to go out and slay dragons and create “action” types of games,” Adams said. “Zombies are also very popular with the boys.” 

The dynamics of the two camps are also quite different, said senior Andrew Webster, a computer science major who is serving his second year of assisting with Imaginary Worlds. “There’s a different energy level,” Webster said. “There were a lot more questions from the guys. The girls seem to be really getting it.”

Boys vs. girls

“The guys were a lot more hyper,” explained John Dood, a Forest Hills Northern junior and another assistant. Dood is a four-time Imaginary Worlds camper and two-time assistant with the camp, and he knows that the guys get distracted by online games: “The girls have probably never played RuneScape,” he said, smiling.

Attendees of both camps are learning skills that are becoming increasingly crucial in an information-driven age, Adams said. “We get an average of three requests per week from companies seeking people with professional computing skills. So, over a year, we get an average of 150-plus requests. And when you have 12 graduates, needless to say, those grads are in high demand.”

Calvin pioneered the Imaginary Worlds camps in 2003 to start preparing middle and high school students for an increasingly digital landscape. “These are 21st-century skills and every student needs to have them, not just these students,” Adams said.

Meyer is enjoying the learning process. “I like programming in Scratch because it’s a lot easier for me to understand,” she said. “Sometimes what I see my dad doing, just a lot of numbers and letters and crazy punctuation, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

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Computer grads in demand

While the media paints a picture of computing jobs going overseas, the reality of the situation is quite different, said Adams. When large U.S. companies outsource their computing work, they most frequently hand it off to U.S. software companies, not ones in foreign countries. “Those companies tend to snap up our grads as fast as they can get them,” he said.

Relatively little of the computer industry’s outsourced work is actually being sent away to other countries or “off-shored,” Adams contended: “The statistics I’ve seen suggest 10 percent or less of computing jobs are being off-shored. And some of those jobs are beginning to come back, due to cross-cultural communication problems or dissatisfaction with the quality of the work done overseas.”

He references U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (US-BLS) predictions that computing will be the fastest-growing U.S. job market in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for the foreseeable future. In fact, the US-BLS projects that between 2008 and 2018, 71 percent of STEM jobs will be in computing, with most of those jobs being in software engineering and computer networking.

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