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Making, Coding, and Games!

Through offering various making and coding activities, I found students love creating their own games and gain many benefits in the process. I have been able to provide students at East Middle School a variety of ways to get involved in making and coding by sponsoring Hour of Code events, a maker club, and a Girls Who Code club.

Hour of Code

Running an Hour of Code activity is a great way for a school librarian to get started in game-based coding activities. The Hour of Code activities (https://code.org/learn) introduce students to coding. The coding activities implicitly teach problem solving and critical thinking while students have fun. The introduction to coding leaves most students with a positive attitude toward programming and computer science and interests many of them to continuing learning more about programming. For instance, Code.org found that before Hour of Code, 55% of female high school students with no prior computer science experience agreed with the statement "I like computer science." After Hour of Code, the percentage of female high school students agreeing with this statement increased to 75%. In addition, Code.org found that 87% of teachers who participated responded that their students went beyond just one hour of coding (https://code.org/about/evaluation/hourofcode)

In December 2014, I held Hour of Code sessions at lunchtime during Computer Science Education Week (typically the first week in December). The event was so successful and so many students wanted to continue with coding activities, that I started a coding club. The following year, I spoke with our science department chair to organize the opportunity for all students at our middle school to experience Hour of Code in science classrooms. I assisted the teachers who were a little nervous about the activity because they had no coding experience. After their first class; the teachers found the activities offered by Hour of Code were self-explanatory and very engaging. Now the Hour of Code is an annual event to introduce students at our school to programming.

I believe, based on reactions from students and teachers, that the Hour of Code activities are so engaging because they are game-based, highly interactive, and many use popular themes such as Star Wars, Angry Birds, Minecraft, and Disney. The tutorials allow students to be successful in creating their own games or programs. We also run our Hour of Code sessions so that students have choice in which activity to complete. Game-based interactive activities, familiar and fun topics or characters, and student choice: a winning combination!

Maker Club

As I was planning to start a maker club, I surveyed students to find out if they were interested in participating and, if so, which activities were of most interest. Eighty-six students responded that they were interested in the club and 72% responded that they were interested in programming activities. The overwhelming majority of these students were interested in creating their own games. That year, two high school students and a teaching colleague helped me sponsor the after-school Maker Club with approximately fifty students. I also sponsored a lunchtime club for those students who were unable to join the after-school club. The high school students led the programming and graphic design activities, while my colleague led crafting activities, and I led video production, including green screen and stop-motion, robotics, and electronics as well as supporting the other areas. For the students who were interested in coding and creating games, we created a list of links to websites which offered free coding tutorials or lessons. The most popular coding language used by Maker Club students was and continues to be Scratch.

Scratch

Scratch Coding Project
Scratch (https://scratch.mit.edu/) is a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. It is a visual programming language students can use to create games, interactive stories, and animations. Scratch is also an online community where students can share their programs. Scratch has a variety of tutorials and starter projects available to help get students started. I also purchased and used the Scratch activity cards with students.

During that first year, it was indispensable to have the high school programming mentor to support students in learning to code and create games. The middle school students loved working with high school students. We also developed peer mentors. Students who loved Scratch and were quickly becoming experts were happy to assist students who needed assistance. Oftentimes when students came to me with a question about their game, I redirected them to one of the students with experience on Scratch. Both students benefitted from the collaboration and this helped to build a sense of community in our club.

When I asked one student what she liked about Scratch, she said, "Scratch is a very open and accepting community. Every time there is a shooting or something horrible happens, the Scratchers do something…they help the bullied, the depressed, the LGBTQ+ community, the disabled, anyone whom they believe needs just a little something to tell them 'it's okay' to be who they are. But the most surprising thing of all is that during all of that, they're coding! Learning what the real world is like through games, animation, art, making things they enjoy, helping themselves and others while not even realizing it! …Scratch isn't just a website, it's a whole different universe for kids to understand the world they live in."

RPG Maker Example 1
RPG Maker

In my second year of sponsoring the East Middle School Maker Club, I was fortunate enough to find another high school mentor (since our first mentors were heading to college). She was very interested in programming and, in particular, creating games. When she recognized the enthusiasm among our students for creating games, she offered to teach students how to create games using RPG Maker. RPG Maker is a series of programs used to create role-playing games (https://www.rpgmakerweb.com/). The club's students responded enthusiastically to learning this new program and soon developed their own community to help and work with each other.

RPG Maker Example 2
One club student said, "I appreciate a great number of things about RPG Maker. There's a huge variety of things you can create. Cheesy as it sounds, you're really only limited by your imagination…Another thing I enjoyed about RPG Maker was the fact that…I figured a lot out by simply exploring…Everyone using RPG Maker worked alongside each other during meetings, and we playtested each other's games through many stages of development…Through working together and using elements from other games, all of our games got better."

Another Maker Club student was so excited about using RPG Maker, the following year when our high school student mentor was heading to college, he asked if he could teach new Maker Club students how to use RPG Maker. He said, "I enjoyed using RPG Maker because I am a fan of and have respect for classic video games…That really sold it to me, that ability to create games, not only of that type but so obviously of that lineage." He felt that teaching other students how to use RPG Maker was more difficult than he had anticipated. However, he said that "the time I spent teaching the kids went better than even I really realized at first. I had gotten them interested, allowed them to get their feet wet, and while some did not pursue it after I showed them; others did, through the rest of the year. Seeing people doing something I taught them how to do…that made all the difference to me."

Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code club
After attending ISTE in 2017 and hearing the keynote by Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, I was committed to starting a Girls Who Code club at my school in addition to the Maker Club. I was disturbed by the statistic from a study by Girls Who Code and Accenture that showed the percentage of females in the computing workforce had dropped from 37% in 1995 to 24% in 2016 (https://girlswhocode.com/crack-the-code/), and I wanted to join the Girls Who Code mission to close the gender gap in technology. I applied to start an official club at my school, was approved, and with minimal marketing, I began the first year of the East Middle School Girls Who Code Club with forty girls.

Girls Who Code offered curriculum and resources to help run the club with their core values of sisterhood, code, and impact. The curriculum revolves around girls working together to design a project that relates to a real-world problem they care about. Building teamwork amongst the girls was crucial to the success of the club. The girls enjoyed working together and were able to help each other think critically, problem solve issues with their projects, and have fun together.

The Girls Who Code curriculum recommended just one computer science impact project for the entire club. However, because the club was large, I allowed students to break up into groups working on several projects. The group brainstormed ideas and then students were allowed to form teams around the project that most interested them. The projects chosen included anti-animal abuse, anti-bullying, saving the environment, and information about and for people with Asperger's syndrome. At the end, we held a celebration where the different teams had the opportunity to demonstrate their project to the rest of the club. The final projects consisted of websites and games the teams developed together. Websites were developed using html, Weebly, or Google Sites. Games were developed using Scratch and Python. For instance, the team of girls who worked on the Asperger's syndrome project completed a website with information and resources, two simulations/games created in Python for those with Asperger's syndrome to learn about communication, and a game created in Scratch to learn about body language. In response to a question about their favorite thing about the club, one of the girls responded: "The thing that I liked most about Girls Who Code was being able to create programs for a meaningful purpose."

Benefits of Creating Games

Students who were involved in creating games in our library have benefited in many ways. Not only did they improve their problem solving, critical thinking, and creative skills; they also developed skills in collaborating and working with others. Additional benefits as expressed by students included being part of a community, developing confidence in one's skills, and developing empathy. And, of course, the students had fun. In the end of the year surveys I conducted, the average rating of students' experience in Maker Club on a scale of one to five was 4.6 and the average rating for the Girls Who Code Club was a 4.0. In addition, 91% of Maker Club students said they would recommend the club to others. Reasons why included "it is a very easy club to feel included in; so I believe others would feel included too" and because "you had the freedom to create what you wanted with other people who enjoy it as well." Students who were members of the Girls Who Code Club responded that their favorite things about the club were "The coding that we did and the new people that we met," "working as a group," and "being creative."

Working with students to learn coding and create their own games has been very rewarding for me. It is great to see students think, create, share, and grow as they learn. The positive feedback from students has been reaffirming. I recommend that school librarians help students create their own games, which can be done simply by using the resources from Hour of Code or by forming clubs for students to delve into creating games more deeply.

Resources

Girls Who Code. https://girlswhocode.com/

Hour of Code. https://hourofcode.com/

Scratch. https://scratch.mit.edu/

RPG Maker. https://www.rpgmakerweb.com/

Our list of online coding tutorials and lessons. http://bit.ly/codingweblinks

About the Author

Kathy Lester, MA, MLIS, is a school librarian at East Middle School in Plymouth, MI. She is a member of the AASL board of directors, a past president and current advocacy chairperson for the Michigan Association for Media in Education, and the communications director for the Michigan Association for Computers Users in Learning SIGLIB. She is a certified educator for Google for Education, BrainPOP, and Ozobot. Her school library was the Michigan SL21 Model Library for 2017-2018. Follow her on Twitter at @LibraryL.

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Lester, Kathy. "Making, Coding, and Games!" School Library Connection, December 2018, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2148472.
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Lester, Kathy. "Making, Coding, and Games!" School Library Connection, December 2018. http://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2148472.
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Lester, K. (2018, December). Making, coding, and games! School Library Connection. Retrieved from http://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2148472
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