Tech-​​Savvy Mentors Help Youth Create Video Games

May 20, 2013

What do the Pythagorean the­orem and car­toon char­ac­ters like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Stewie from Family Guy have in common? They were both used this spring semester to help teach local youth how to create video games, with the assis­tance from stu­dent vol­un­teers studying com­puter sci­ence and busi­ness at Northeastern.

The ini­tia­tive revolves around Boot­strap, a free cur­riculum that since 2005 has been used to teach stu­dents nationwide—primarily ages 12–16—to pro­gram their own video games using alge­braic and geo­metric con­cepts. The mis­sion is to build excite­ment and con­fi­dence around gaming and for stu­dents to apply these skills in fun projects.

Ear­lier this year, the Boot­strap pro­gram received acco­lades after sev­eral news out­lets reported a first grader in Philadel­phia became the youngest person to create a full ver­sion of a mobile video-​​game application—a feat the 7-​​year-​​old achieved using Bootstrap.

North­eastern has been a long­standing sup­porter of Boot­strap. This semester, Boot­strap part­nered with the uni­ver­sity, Tri­pAd­visor, and Cit­izen Schools to bring the cur­riculum to three Mass­a­chu­setts schools: the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, the Dever-​​McCormack Middle School in Dorch­ester, and the Orchard Gar­dens K-​​8 School in Roxbury.

On May 13, the uni­ver­sity hosted an expo in the Curry Stu­dent Center for 12 of the middle-​​school stu­dents to show­case their projects, who wore black t-​​shirts with the words, “I pro­gram my own video games.”

This semester marked the fourth time Tyler Rosini, a com­puter sci­ence and finance com­bined major, has vol­un­teered to teach through the pro­gram. “I like the idea of giving back to kids,” said Rosini, who recalled being inspired to par­tic­i­pate when Boot­strap cre­ator Emmanuel Schanzer pitched the oppor­tu­nity during one of Rosini’s first-​​year classes.

The premise of the com­puter games on dis­play is simple: The user con­trols a car­toon char­acter on the screen, and the char­acter racks up points by cap­turing a target that con­tin­u­ally moves across the screen. At the same time, the char­acter must avoid coming into con­tact with a sep­a­rate moving target, a vil­lain of sorts.

Rosini and fourth-​​year stu­dent Joe O’Neil, a com­puter sci­ence and accounting com­bined major, have vol­un­teered once a week this semester in the Edwards School. The lessons started with teaching simple con­cepts about writing code and pro­gram­ming. Over a 10-​​week span, Rosini and O’Neil added new ele­ments to their lessons, from cre­ating the char­ac­ters on screen to allowing them to move in dif­ferent directions.

After his first semester vol­un­teering, O’Neil embraced reversing his role in the class­room from stu­dent to teacher. “I was impressed with how quickly some of the kids picked up these chal­lenging con­cepts,” he said.