STEM-JAM

The participants were broken into small groups based on their skill levels. 

Thirty-seven students from regional middle and high schools convened in the ISAT building Friday and Saturday to learn programming concepts through storytelling and game design at Game Jam 2019, a two-day friendly competition among aspiring coders.

The event was co-hosted by the JMU Center for STEM Education and Outreach and Harrisonburg City Public Schools. Organizers wanted to provide a “low-barrier” event for students interested in coding that offers resources to jumpstart a greater understanding of the world of computer science.

“We live in a culture where there is a lot of passive use of technology — where we sit down at an iPad or with our mouse and computer screen, and we just click what someone else has created — but there’s definitely extra meaning to something that you create with your own hands,” Perry Shank, an event coordinator and computer science teacher at Harrisonburg High School, said. 

Shank stressed that the event was centered around inclusivity and student collaboration. Approximately half of the event’s participants were provided a scholarship to waive the $10 program fee. Shank said he realized that travel to the event could be a difficult obstacle for some students, and he didn’t want to further inhibit attendance by barring students due to financial burden.

Additionally, event organizers purposefully omitted the word “programming” from the title of the event to avoid deterring students with minimal background in the field. Acknowledging that participants’ experience and coding knowledge spanned a wide spectrum, organizers divided participants into four groups. The first division served students who had minimal exposure to programming software. Those teams designed board games using logic structures that resembled coding.

Students with greater familiarity with programming worked in the two intermediate groups. This segment of teams used block coding programs like App Lab and Scratch, which are ideal for beginner coders. Shank and Jon Stapleton, another event coordinator and Harrisonburg High School computer science teacher, created program functions that further simplified the process for this wing of students.

The most advanced teams at the event used text-based coding programs like JavaScript, Python and C++.

Paul Tongen, a 7th grader at Skyline Middle School in Harrisonburg, said he came to Game Jam after his dad, who’s the Associate Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at JMU, told him about the event. Paul said he loves coding because of how much math is involved.

“It’s lots of fun to get to make a game that can be used and people can have fun with,” Paul said.

Mason Ritchie, a 9th grader at Eastern Mennonite School in Harrisonburg, dreams of being an astronaut at NASA one day. To accomplish his goal, Mason enrolled in a Python course at school, where he learned about the Game Jam event. He said what he’ll cherish most from his two days on campus was the opportunity to devote himself to a single project and to feel proud of something he designed.

The theme of the event was “Stories from the Past.” Students were encouraged to interpret the loose guideline creatively. Students bounced around the room, determined to try every team’s game and beat their friends’ high scores.

“The best part is just seeing the smiles on their faces and how the students have been able to dive into their story that they got to build from the ground up and bring to life,” Kevin Carini, a chemistry, physics and robotics teacher at Eastern Mennonite School, said.

Cameron Byer, a junior math and computer science major at Eastern Mennonite University, said computer science is a discipline that’s not generally sought out by students early in their education.

“My school didn’t even have any programming classes,” Byer said. “This event generates awareness for the field and how much fun it is to do things like this.”

A handful of participants didn’t speak English, and an even larger segment of the students faced programming language barriers. Despite the added difficulty, Shank said the students didn’t let these roadblocks hinder their progress.

“As a teacher, seeing the students grow when they are put in a situation that cultivates their experience is a really rich learning opportunity,” Shank said. “Through some intense problem-solving, students were able to overcome some barriers, and that inspires me.”

The event concluded with a banquet where students presented the projects they labored over for two days to their parents. Participants discussed the challenges they overcame and how they would improve their design if they were allowed more time. Students showcased their work by guiding fellow coders through their games. The event transformed into a competition when students voted for the project they believed deserved a $10 gift card to a local video game store.

“We had nothing to begin with yesterday, and then today, we have flushed out games that the students have designed and built themselves,” Carini said.

Shank envisions the event becoming an annual occurrence that encourages students to pursue passions within the programming field.

“I believe that anytime you have students together where they’re laughing and having a great time and building things, that’s a success, and that’s really what we’ve had this weekend,” Shank said.

Contact Brice Estes at estes2ba@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.