In the game you design, you have dozens of characters to choose from. Foxes and pandas, coyotes and koalas, unicorns and dinosaurs. Your creature can scurry through brightly-colored mazes and hop from block to block to dodge rocks and bricks and bones. You can send it after bacon and cake, and diamonds and flowers. Winning can mean surviving in the desert, the jungle, or outer space. Defending a tall tower, or scaling it. You decide.

Throughout Virginia, students in elementary, middle, and high school have been able to explore the possibilities of imaginative video game design using GameChangineer, a programming instruction platform developed by Virginia Tech College of Engineering Professor Michael Hsiao. Designed to introduce students to coding without immediately steeping them in complex programming languages, the platform allows students to create “game plans” in plain English, have them automatically converted into game code, and watch their ideas take animated form.

Since developing the platform in 2015, Hsiao has visited Virginia schools and hosted classes and outreach events at Virginia Tech to teach students to create games with GameChangineer. Last year, Mecklenburg County Extension 4-H agent Jennifer Bowen learned about Hsiao and his outreach work with the platform, and saw in it a community service opportunity for her 4-H’ers.

Bowen and the Mecklenburg 4-H Tech Changemakers asked Hsiao to show them not only how to use the platform, but to teach GameChangineer to others. Now, the 4-H’ers are providing kids from their county’s rural, lakeside farming towns with entry into the world of coding — and the opportunities that come with boosting their digital literacy.

As 4-H Tech Changemakers, Bowen’s 4-H’ers are part of an initiative by National 4-H Council and Microsoft to support teen leaders as they develop digital skill-building projects to serve their communities. The team saw teaching GameChangineer as an opportunity to provide Mecklenburg youth with digital skills that could give them access to a wider pool of jobs.

“They saw how education and economic development were connected,” Bowen said. “They wanted to give young people the skills they’d need in the future to be part of the workforce.”

For Bowen, GameChangineer is ideal for building digital literacy among Mecklenburg youth, in its instruction methodology as well as its format. The platform is free and web-based, cutting out the extra step of software installation for local schools. GameChangineer is also unique in its use of plain English, or "natural language," game plans, which allow students to start with a language in which they're already fluent.

Hsiao positions natural language and programming language as two ends of a spectrum. One end, the English end, can be imprecise, incomplete, and ambiguous, while the programming end, in languages like JavaScript, is constructed to eliminate those features. Looking around, he found that most existing educational coding tools pulled closer to programming languages. 

“The downside some kids have observed is that programming language is too foreign to them,” said Hsiao. “I wanted to create something closer to the natural language side of the spectrum.”

Teaching GC
Virginia Tech College of Engineering Professor Michael Hsiao hosts outreach events and visits schools to teach GameChangineer to Virginia students.

In GameChangineer, students make game plans out of a series of English “if, then” sentences, identifying game characters, objects they interact with, and elements of gameplay. Students have to use the right grammar and sequence their sentences correctly to produce a working game. By nailing down concepts of consistency and logical sequencing through sentence structure, they can begin to think like computer scientists and unravel the sometimes puzzling nature of code.

To Hsiao, who has loved programming video games since he was in middle school, teaching kids to program through video game design is one of the best ways to keep them engaged. “Almost all kids like to play games,” he said. “Every time I go to an outreach event and do GameChangineer with them, the first time they see their own sentences come to life — just that ‘wow.’ That amazement. I think it’s very empowering to them.”

Last spring, Jennifer Bowen brought the Mecklenburg 4-H Tech Changemakers to Virginia Tech, where Hsiao took them through beginner, intermediate, and advanced online lessons on his platform, specifically to get them to operate as he does when instructing elementary and middle school students. Like a teacher. He posed to them the same questions that they might receive from students while teaching GameChangineer.

After the training at Virginia Tech, the 4-H’ers began teaching GameChangineer with a pilot lesson for fourth- and fifth-graders at Clarksville Elementary School.

“It was really, really well-received,” Bowen said. The team’s teaching activities snowballed from there: they taught in after-school programs, day camps, and summer camp. Teachers sitting in on the classes became interested in incorporating the platform into their curriculum, so the Mecklenburg County administration requested that the 4-H’ers teach an in-service workshop for the area’s public school teachers, similar in format to what Hsiao did for the teens last spring.

4-H’er Scott Mickler has found that teaching GameChangineer has helped him develop his digital skills as well as confidence in front of a crowd. Mickler said he grew up a shy kid, usually quiet and withdrawn to the back of a room when it was filled with people. His teaching experiences with groups of students have changed that.

“I’m more up in the front and ready to talk to people and make new connections,” he said. “I would say that all of that is because of 4-H. I did grow more confident with age, but with this GameChangineer program and meeting all the people that I have — it’s opened me up.”

Last fall, the 4-H Tech Changemakers hosted a video game design contest to enable Mecklenburg students to showcase the GameChangineer game plans they had been working on. They expected 20 or 30 entries; they received 140. Judging was difficult. Many of the entries were both creative and packed with technical skill.

“Our high school winner actually turned it into a platform for nutrition education, which I never would have thought about,” Bowen said. “You could get extra points if you ate broccoli instead of donuts or bacon.”

The program and its local demand keep Bowen and her 4-H’ers busy, but to her, a full slot of youth programming activities is welcome. “So many people here see 4-H as farming and home economics,” she said. “It’s been so hard to get people to understand that it’s so much more than that. Now, they see 4-H as a resource for STEM, which is great.”

Written by Suzanne Irby