Scratching a creative surface


BUILD YOUR OWN MARIO: Drawing students into the language of computers and the technology behind the games

TODAYS STUDENTS come hard-wired with an understanding of computers and technology. Halo, Mario,and Guitar Heroare amongst the enormously popular computer games grabbing their attention, while social networking websites such as Bebo and Facebook have changed the very nature of young people’s interactions.

It’s somewhat surprising, perhaps, that this hasn’t translated into increased student numbers in third-level computer courses. Now, two initiatives for transition year and other secondary students aim to bring them one step closer to the language of computers and the technology behind some of their favourite programmes and games.

Having Fun with Computer Programming and Games is a module based on the software tool Scratch, with students learning how to create their own computer characters, games, and animations.

Aoife Kilvey, a 16-year-old student at Castletroy College in Limerick, spent eight weeks developing her own animation. “I had no experience of computer programming, so I didn’t really know what to expect,” she says.

“I worked with some other students to create a story about bees and flowers. I did most of the code, while my friends designed the background and the characters.”

The module, developed by the Irish Software Engineering Research centre LERO in association with the Irish Computer Society, teaches students the basics of programming using a simple drag and drop interface rather than more complex syntax.

Participants also hone their imaginative, artistic, and creative skills, as Castletroy student Andrew O’Hara discovered: “The people in my group were really interested in cars so we decided to create a race car game. Other students have created Tetris, basketball, or trampoline games, or devised their own story. It’s been a great chance to learn about subjects that would normally feel quite obscure, such as algorithms.”

Participants can upload their games and stories to the Scratch website for others to play or view. This year, a competition is challenging four students to create and design a project, with four winners selected from each province to go through to a national final.

While some transition year students are scratching the surface of computer programmes, others are embroiled in Moodle, a free and open-source e-learning programme.

In one innovative programme, students are assisted in setting up and maintaining a virtual learning environment for their school.

Niamh Cronin, a sixth-year student at Portmarknock Community College, has been using Moodle since transition year. “It’s a change from the usual way of learning, and it has opened us up to the possibilities of working online,” she explains. “I think learning will increasingly take place online; Moodle is a good opportunity for us to get used to it.

“At the moment, our English class uses Moodle for discussion forums about the different texts on the course. Using Moodle has also given us a lot more confidence with computers, so we have started to make podcasts.”

Donal O’Mahony, assistant principal at Portmarknock, was one of the first second-level teachers to bring moodle into the classroom. “Initially, 10 teachers at the school agreed to take part in the programme, including the transition year English teacher,” he says.

“Students used Moodle to produce a tourist brochure for their local area, and uploaded their finished project through Moodle. Using Moodle has had a huge effect on both staff and students, and it has been a catalyst for further online innovations.”