It’s a bit hard to explain the energy at a week-long youth animation camp. It doesn’t have the noise level or visible chaos of a robotics camp – all flying pieces and runaway rovers. But the room clearly has an excited focus, a buzz. Almost all of the kids at this year’s animation academy, run through Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education (CIPCE), were drawn to the program by their love of gaming. Only about half of the 8-10 year olds arrived with prior programming experience. But by the midpoint of the camp there were already a dozen games with a dozen different personalities shining through.

Stella (8) was drawn to the program because her favorite game stopped being made after the third version. She wants to be able to build version four for herself. Tyler (8) wants to be a programmer and saw this as a chance to build his skills. Sabrina (8) was more direct about her motivation: “It sounded awesome.” Whatever their motivation or experience level, the kids were getting a foundation in more than programming. They were learning to see all of the work that goes on behind the scenes to create a successful game.

Credit: Amanda Baker

“First you have to come up with an idea, and that is probably the hardest part,” said Gabby (9). The games in the room ranged from navigating mazes to dodging rockets, from collecting coins to pursuing a moving block of cheese. Brandon (10) wanted to infuse his game with real-life lessons. “Should you eat an apple off the floor? No, you shouldn’t,” he explained. “So, you can learn that bad things happen if you eat off the floor in the game.”

Once you have an idea, the kids explained, you move on to all the pieces that take it from an idea to a game. Does it have a story? What’s it called? What gives you points or life? What takes that away? How many tries should you get? How do you keep track of those tries and make them appear on the screen? What happens if you win? What about when you lose? The kids had to make decisions about each point and then settle down to the task of using their code to make those decisions a reality on the screen.

Beyond the logistics are the more subjective questions, like how hard the game should be. There were many ways to make a game difficult, and the kids took a range of approaches to implementing them. Some gave the player fewer tries. Some added more obstacles. Figuring this part out seemed particularly fun and presented a chance for peer feedback. Between programming sessions, the kids would present to each other in periodic demos. Each student got the chance to hook their game up to the giant screen, explain its premise, and play the game for the group.

Some of the peer feedback got to be tested on the spot. One game – where the main character had to dodge a rocket blasting down a tunnel – seemed too easy to most of the group. The designer quickly added four more rockets and tried to play again. The room erupted in laughter. “Oh god! There’s five now!” came from the back of the room. The poor furry hero didn’t stand a chance. The room agreed that five was, perhaps, too hard. At least without a chance to practice.

Credit: Amanda Baker

Other lessons, like learning to succinctly explain ideas or deal with feedback in front of a group, came naturally and will serve the students as well as their new programming skills. (And that isn’t even counting the ability to fix an AV hookup on the fly that would make them the heroes of any office meeting.) Programming also provides a chance to deal with the strengths and weaknesses of working with technology. A few frozen laptops and spontaneous shutdowns quickly bred a commitment to frequent saving practices. Tyler (8) lost a fair bit of his game in one such situation, but he found it to be easier – and cleaner – programming it the second time. “It’s probably better now without all of the extra stuff I had in there from the first time,” he explained. Like anything in the STEM world, taking setbacks in stride is as important as any content knowledge.

But the students felt that the creative aspects of animation actually crossed beyond the boundaries of what they normally considered as science. Most of the kids thought that animation had as much in common with their art classes as science or math – if not more. The kids had a chance to start programming almost immediately on day one, learning to use functions and tools as they went. It made the process not only feel creative, but it also made the programming fundamentals feel like exciting tools rather than things to memorize. Tyler (8) was quite excited about the possibilities presented by “if” statements. Andrew (8) was more fond of loops. Even though this might be roughly equivalent to saying “man, I feel like adding fractions to my repertoire has opened a ton of new doors,” I didn’t get the sense that any of the kids felt that their excitement about basic programming tools was odd. Those tools were just a way to build their own game from scratch, play it, and share it with their peers.