Christian Elting and Owen Kulik, both going into seventh grade next year, are partners at summer camp. They look carefully at their craft project, making sure they haven’t missed any small details. After all, it’s difficult to get everything right from the start when you design something like this.
Only it’s not God’s eyes or braided lanyards they’re making. Elting and Kulik are hard at work on a video game called “Axe Hero.” The two guide the game’s titular hero through Level 1, debugging the game and looking for glitches. The hero is a lanky fellow, resembling a Transformer robot or Mega Man. He’s dressed in angular red, white and blue clothing.
Axe Hero jumps to avoid enemies, chucking tomahawks as he leaps from floating island to floating island.
“It’s basically just a platformer game about a guy who has an axe,” Kulik says. “If he hits the enemy, he has to start over the level, and he has one less life.”
On a large sheet of paper is the layout to the level they’re designing. It’s a rough schematic of the pitfalls and challenges Axe Hero will have to overcome. On Level 2, he meets the boss.
Around them much the same is happening, more than 20 other kids are working on games that resemble old-school space shooters like Galaga, mazes or text-based adventure games. Next door, their friend Matt is working on a game called “The Revenge of the Fighters.”
Somewhere down the hall at Ulster BOCES Career & Technical Center in New Paltz, another group of 20-plus students is hard at work building robots. The whole thing is a part of what’s called the Project STEAM Adventure Camp. It takes seventh-graders, eighth-graders and ninth-graders and sets them to real-world engineering tasks. On the way, maybe even by accident, they’ll learn a bit about math and science.
Taima Smith is the camp counselor in charge of teaching the kids how to make video games. It’s not far off from her regular job during the school year — she teaches media and game design for BOCES.
“We’re using a software called ‘Games Factory,’ and it’s kind of an easy way to make 2-D games without doing programing using real code. So they’re doing programing, but they’re using a more English-based code,” Smith explains. “A lot of them are doing side-scrolling adventure games.”
Part of what their teacher helped them learn from the get-go is that they knew a heck of a lot more about game design than they thought. According to BOCES Grant Coordinator Bonnie Meadow, who helped set up the camp, the first session of the game-making course started with a negative question.
“What are the games you love? And what are the things that annoy you or that don’t work? What are the things that are a problem in games? They had a whole list,” Meadow said. “They’ve developed their own set of criteria as players that they didn’t even realize they had.”
In the robot-building part of the camp, Shane Houghtaling has decided to make a major structural change to his bot. It resembles a remote-controlled car built from parts of an Erector Set. He’s decided the tires have to go — it’s time for tank treads.
“I’m trying to build an actual robot that will move with treads and tank controls. The whole point that I’m trying to figure out was how to make it work with the treads,” Houghtaling says.
Like the other kids, he’s working in small groups to create robots that will spar competitively. They’ve had five days to build something that can push colored balls to the opposing team’s side of the court. Essentially, it’s sports for robots.
The kids have to decide if they’ll use tires or treads, if they’ll drive their robot by joystick or have it run automatically and how to tweak their design to win.
Houghtaling says he’s worried. Those treads are “adding increasing amounts of weight” onto his group’s machine. It’s a tradeoff. Those treads will roll over anything; however, that weight could make for a slow-running robot in a competition that’s all about speed.
“The real interesting thing is that they don’t really realize what amazing stuff they’re learning in the process,” explains Andrew Taylor, the director of distance learning for BOCES. He’s another camp organizer.
“I sat out front the other day watching a girl fixing her solar car. And she had a time of like 19, which was kind of like one of the worst in the class. All the sudden, she tears the motor off,” Taylor says. “She starts putting tape on it, put on this little thing — she went from having the worst time in the class to having one of the best times.”
Kids in the camp start talking in engineering terms almost without realizing it. It’s pretty common for the kids to talk about angles, weights, code and gear ratios.
Mark Harris is the counselor teaching robotics to the Project STEAM kids. He noted that a lot of the learning is happening by trial and error.
“Yesterday we had them out doing some obstacle courses,” Harris says. “Today we started them off with ‘now re-engineer your design.’”
The robots also require the kids to learn how to do some programing. “Yesterday we had them running with a joystick — they look like an Xbox controller. But yesterday we also had them programmed to run autonomously.”
While the teams might ultimately decide on manual control, the point is that they have to learn both. Exactly like the video game group, the robotics group gets only a work week — just five days — to finish their project. After that, they’ll switch classrooms.
“We have a week of robotics and a week of game design. So a two-week camp total,” he explains. “So in a week, they’ve learned some basic principles of engineering. Some physics, math — we’re covering gear ratios and learn how to program in the language the robots use.”
For the uninitiated, a “gear ratio” has to do with the relation in size and velocity of two different gears. Swap out the sizes, organize them differently and the machine will run faster or slower depending on the engineer’s desired result.
Behind the camp
Project STEAM Adventure Camp came about through a partnership between BOCES and the YWCA of Ulster County. It’s funded through grant money that state Sen. John Bonacic helped make available.
“STEAM” itself stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.” The whole project is to integrate different disciplines into a mindset matching 21st-century demands. The Ulster BOCES’s research team spent time looking at other science and tech schools to learn what they did best.
“We really realized that practical, hands-on learning was one of the key components to a successful program,” Taylor says.
Jonah Schenker normally serves as a BOCES principal in charge of special education. This summer, he’s the Project STEAM camp director. He’s one of a team of administrators, including Taylor and Meadows, and superintendents Charles Khoury and Laurie Cassel, who put the summer camp together.
One surprise for the kids was a chance to drive a flight simulator. Aviators rely on those simulations — a type of highly technical video game — to train and learn to fly. Director Schenker says it was important to give kids an alternative, real-world application to the games they were designing.
“There are summer camps all over,” he says. It’s rare for those camps, however, to have a science and technology angle. “We are a ‘STEAM’-focused camp.”
For kids interested in this camp, it’s too late for 2012. Project STEAM camp ends this Friday. Children who signed up had a $200 enrollment fee to cover all their costs.
However, the camp director notes BOCES is already looking to next year. “This is the planting of the seeds,” he says. “This was to plant the seeds and see if the ground was fertile. From there we can determine what else can grow from here.”
Interest in the camp was already high this year. BOCES expected at most 40 kids to sign up — they got 43 from Ulster, Dutchess, Orange and Greene counties.
For more information about Ulster BOCES’s other programs, head to www.ulsterboces.org.