By Teachers, For Teachers
July 27--Jeff Epps, the IT director for the school district, created an innovative program that's so compelling it's causing kids to give up weeks of their summer vacation -- to go to school.
For four weeks out of the summer, Richmond County Transitional School opens its doors to any kids (middle school through high school) who are interested in trying computer programming and game design.
The workshop is free, and kids come to as many sessions during the four weeks as they want.
"That's how we start to gauge who's really taking an interest in this," said Epps. "We have about 10 kids here right now, but we've had as many as 24. The ones who really get into just keep coming back, and we have to push them out the door when it's time to go at 1 p.m."
Rather than sitting home playing video games, kids get the opportunity to design their own. They create games that can be played on a computer or Xbox, and the games are burned for them to take home to play. The games they create are also made available for students throughout the school district.
This is the third year Epps has headed up the "camp," and he said returning kids are now really starting to reach accomplished skill levels and are writing computer code effectively.
"The middle-school age kids start out on a program called Kodu, designed by Microsoft," said Epps. "That teaches 3D game design theory."
"I'm playing a racing game, and I made short cuts and cheat codes in the game to make it more fun," said middle schooler Jackson Epps, who goes to the workshops with his dad.
"This is interesting because they are writing codes and graphically programing characters, which requires logic and higher-level thinking," said Epps.
Epps said the goal of working with the younger kids is to introduce them to computer programming, so that by the time they're introduced to a higher level they already have the basics.
"Kodu, what these middle schoolers are using, is something that has caught on in other schools around the country, but it's mostly high schoolers getting introduced to it," said Epps.
What makes this such an exciting opportunity for students in Richmond County is that the older students are already given the tools to start writing their own computer codes.
"The older kids are using more sophisticated design tools to create all kinds of simulation," said Epps. "They're doing things like 3D design, scanning objects to import images into games, designing games for the Xbox Kinect and creating programs that respond to voice and motion commands."
The longer-term goal of this program is to make the students appealing to employers when they graduate, sending students off with an advanced set of skills already under their belts.
"My vision is to lure high tech companies to Richmond County, by churning out a talented workforce for them," said Epps.
Some of the kids seem to be interested in a tech career, while others simply enjoy the challenge of creating something unique.
Alexis Greene, a 16-year-old girl, is one of the few female programmers interested in game design.
"We do have a bit of an issue attracting girls to this field," said Epps. "But let me tell you, Alexis is the best 3D modeler I have. There's nothing holding young women back from excelling at this. Another interesting thing we've noticed is that students who do well in English tend to make very good programmers, but we don't know why."
"I didn't even know what this was when I signed up, but I found out that I love it," said Greene, a student at Richmond Early College High School. "I'm now considering doing this as a career."
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the "camp" is that students don't follow any set curriculum. Rather, they are given a set of tools, guidance when they have questions and are left free to explore the possibilities of their own creativity.
For example, a small clump of middle schoolers gathered around a peer's computer, pointing at his game and offering suggestions, while a high schooler designed a shooting game and another older student created 3D replications of a space shuttle. One student even created a 3D image of a person, complete with life-like movements and was working to perfect the "skin" on the image.
"The kids are free to find what really interests them, and just get into it," said Epps. "There are different aspects of gaming and computer programming that interest them all."
"It's really neat to watch these kids interact with the technology," said Chad Osborne, a RCTS music teacher who assists with the program. "I'm interested in the technology myself, but it's different for them -- they've been using computers all their lives. It's like second nature for them to understand this and work with it."
This is the last week of the four-week program, but Epps said he's interested in making this available to kids throughout the school year.
"Right now, I do some after school things but that requires me to go to each location and the time they can spend doing this is less than what they'd be able to do if we could all meet at one place on a regular basis," he said. "We have a lot of equipment set up here, and what I'd like to see happen is to find a way to raise money for a shuttle to pick kids up maybe twice a week and bring them here."
Epps is looking into a grant to help fund a van, and is also open to any donations from the public.
"We don't care about getting something really nice -- if we can just get enough money together to fund an old van to bring the kids to this lab that would be great," he said.
For more information about the program, contact Epps at 910-582-5860, ext. 1288.
-- Staff Writer Kelli Easterling can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 18, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image Source: The Observer