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Students Learning Programming Like Magic

Evening Edition

Above: Across the country there’s a drive to give students more hands-on experiences with science and technology. KPBS education reporter Kyla Calvert spoke with University City fourth graders, who got to test-drive a video game that teaches computer programming basics.

Aired 4/12/13 on KPBS News.

Computer science graduate students at UCSD are bringing the basics of computer programing to elementary schoolers.

— Across the country, there’s a drive to give students more hands-on experiences with science and technology. Some University City fourth graders got to test-drive a video game that teaches computer programming basics.

One of them was 9-year-old Jade Climo, who said she enjoyed her second chance to play the game called "CodeSpells" Friday morning.

“I think that it’s fun to give spells and be chased by monsters and levitate and stuff.”

She was one of about a dozen students at Spreckles Elementary working with the game. In addition to escaping monsters and floating, she and her partner Amela Atwell were using the game’s spells to complete the challenges set before them — like delivering a package to a house on the other side of a river.

“We’re going to go into the spell book," Atwell explained, pointing to her computer screen. "Then you find teleportation and we click on copy.” After that students drop and drag the spells where they want them to work their magic on screen.

But Sarah Esper, one of the UC San Diego computer science Ph.D. students who developed the free game, said they’re also learning about the building blocks behind many websites and computer programs.

“All of the spells are actual Java code, so that’s one of the biggest components of CodeSpells, is we’re using an industry-standard language," she said. "And it’s often the language first taught in an undergraduate curriculum.”

Espers and her design partner wanted to take the frustration out of the early stages of learning to program.

“Because you have this computer telling you ‘No, you’re wrong. No, you’re wrong. No, you’re wrong,’" she said. "And in video games though, you don’t have that. You’re constantly dying and failing, but you keep trying and keep trying.”

Students start out copying spells, but then can make changes to the code or write their own. Esper said the game has already been downloaded about 1,500 times. CodeSpells will be on display next week at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering's Graduate Student Research Expo.

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