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Game on: Students gain programming skills while learning to read

June 12, 2017

Photo of Michael S. Hsiao standing in the center of a classroom filled with Macs with GameChangineers on the screens.
Michael S. Hsiao presents GameChangineer in a classroom. Hsiao is an IEEE Fellow and a recipient of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award. His current research interests include design automation of hardware and software, such as automated synthesis, test, verification, and diagnosis of complex computing systems.

Most American third-graders don’t know how to write in JavaScript, but they are learning how to read and write in English. Now they can do all three simultaneously while engaging in something they enjoy — making up games.

Michael Hsiao, a professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has just filed a patent for his platform, GameChangineer, which piggybacks on the allure of video game design to introduce programming concepts and reinforce English language lessons for students of all ages.

Last spring, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation that calls for the state’s Board of Education to incorporate computer science, computational thinking, and computer coding into the Standards of Learning curriculum.

Still, “JavaScript doesn’t come easily to elementary school children or teachers,” Hsiao said.

GameChangineer aims to bridge this gap. Thanks to his work introducing it to local school districts, many students in and around Blacksburg are already using the platform.

After demonstrating GameChangineer for the first time in January 2016, Hsiao began working with outreach programs like Kindergarten to College, a college aspirations program. Hsiao also piloted his platform to schools in Salem, Roanoke County, Montgomery County, and Radford City.

Teachers tried it out for a week, and a few asked to continue because their students were hooked, Hsiao explained.

“Two to three English teachers are actually using this in their classrooms, too,” Hsiao said. “There aren’t many video games that can get students interested in sentence structure.”

Hsiao plans to offer training sessions to additional Virginia school systems in the coming months.

In GameChangineer, the game design and functionality rests entirely on a written game plan. The designer writes out instructions for every step of the game, applying programming concepts, such as logical reasoning, problem-solving, algorithmic design, and critical and computational thinking.

While a game designer can invent his or her own game from scratch, many people like to re-create or reinvent their favorite games — such as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger, and Downhill Ski. Hsiao encourages this approach, too, saying that it allows designers to break down a familiar game into its basic components and see how they fit together.

After the game has been successfully compiled, designers can see, play, and test their game. If a game is free of bugs, they also have the option to share their game with others by posting it in the gallery.

When he was first developing GameChangineer, Hsiao had to teach himself modern game design, and he has developed a course to teach electrical and computer engineering students the same skills. His class, Video Game Design and Engineering, was first offered in fall 2015. Undergraduate students from Virginia Tech have helped to populate the site with sample video games, now totaling more than 100.

GameChangineer is not limited to educational purposes. Hsiao’s technology could eventually be incorporated into robotic systems, enabling a controller to type and load written instructions without having to code them.

But Hsiao sees this first use as a fun and creative way to learn programming concepts and discover the logic and critical thinking behind popular games.

“I wanted it to be educational, and the best reward for programming your own game is getting to play it,” Hsiao said. “I can’t think of a better way to teach.”

Written by Kelly Izlar

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