GW students get with the programming

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In a nondescript third-story classroom of George Washington High School, James Mitrik leans toward his computer screen, furrowing his brow as he focuses on a sheet of code and the open Flash program running on his screen."So what I'm doing now is creating a bowtie for Theodore Roosevelt," said Mitrik, his mouse darting around a small orange butterfly shape he's fashioned in a Flash program. "I'm going to add this to the screen where Roosevelt is sitting in his office when he was [assistant] secretary of the Navy."Mitrik and his seven classmates are creating computer games as part of a real-world computer-programming course called Globaloria. Students in the video-programming course, developed by Idit Caperton, wife of former Gov. Gaston Caperton, create an idea for a computer game, and then use a Flash program to write code and build the program from scratch."It's not your typical class," said Karen Kail, a 15-year former programmer and math and Globaloria teacher at GW. "This program gives kids real-world skills. They have to collaborate and are self-directed to take an idea from the start and follow it through to the end, meeting deadlines and solving problems themselves. I wish there were more programs like this."
Mitrik and his partner designed and programmed a game called "Assault in Cuba," set during the Spanish-American War. Users follow Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders through the desert, shooting at flying tumbleweed, in a simulation of the Battle of San Juan Hill. By the end of the two-semester class, Mitrik will have completed a video game, blogged about his project, and created a wiki page explaining the process and development of the game. As districts aim to find alternative ways to increase student engagement in the STEM fields, programs like Globaloria are taking root in classrooms across the state. The Globaloria program at George Washington began in 2007, but Kail says it has hit a few funding and staffing snags along the way.School systems, facing shrinking budgets, must weigh the financial costs of offering programs like Globaloria -- with price tags in the ballpark of $20,000 a year, said Kail -- with the benefits for kids. Teachers, who may not have a familiarity with computer science, must master the basics of the coding subject matter, fill out extensive paperwork, and in many cases must learn along with their students, she said.But Kail says the program is a homerun with high school students, giving them invaluable computer savvy and self-direction.
"They're so engaged with it," said Kail. "It's wonderful."George Washington's Globaloria program was just one of the myriad technology programs featured on Wednesday as part of Digital Learning Day, a national event coordinated by The Alliance for Excellent Education. The event, spearheaded by Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia, aims to build a digital learning movement to provide teachers with technology tools to enhance students' learning experiences."Simply layering on technology alone will not move the education needle very much," said Wise. "Effective technology combined with great teachers and engaged students have the potential to transform the world of learning. The time has come to ensure that every child has access to the engaging experience that comes with powerful teaching and rigorous content available through digital learning."Kail, for one, hopes the Globaloria program takes off. So does Mitrik. He plans to take another Globaloria class next year, if he can fit the elective into his schedule.As the bell signaling the end of class blared through the halls of GW, students in Kail's class loaded books into their backpacks. But Mitrik remained in his seat, his eyes still fixed on his computer screen."No, I wanna do more!" he said. "I still need to work on Roosevelt!"Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.harris@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.
 
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