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Des Moines middle schoolers learn app basics at Drake summer camp

Drake University professor Tim Urness helps a student on a written exercise during a summer app camp.

“Don’t blow up the moon.”

That’s a bit of advice I received yesterday at Drake University’s summer App Camp while testing Space Battles, an interactive droid game app similar to Space Invaders. It’s designers are three Des Moines-area eighth graders—Ezra, Ian and Riley.

But despite my best efforts, I did blow up the moon.

During two week-long sessions, professors and students provide a computer science crash course to Des Moines area middle schoolers.

Professor Tim Urness said he was inspired to start the camp after interactions he had with students who took computer science classes as electives or to satisfy major requirements. Urness says these students sometimes view the subject as unapproachable.

“They come in as freshman not knowing what computer science really is, and they’re automatically afraid of it,” he said. “So this is kind of a way to acclimate (kids) at a younger age so they don’t get scared or believe that stereotype.”

The camp itself is structured to break those stereotypes by introducing students to programming through a syntax-free language. This way the pint-sized coders don’t have to worry about curly brackets and semicolons.

The coding fields are pre-written to allow students to input their own variables and specifications. These subroutines appear as puzzle pieces that campers can drag and drop into place depending on what they want their program to do.

“It’s kind of like coding with Legos,” Urness said.

The Space Battles developers work on their game during Drake’s app camp Wednesday.

Eric Manley—another computer science professor at Drake—and Urness created podcast tutorials for making simple apps, simple things like pressing a button to play a sound or creating a canvas for users to draw on. The exercises progress in difficulty to more advanced projects like creating a version of Pong.

By the end of the week, campers are able to create their own apps. As of Wednesday, the Space Battles developers seemed to be nearly done; they were looking for 8-bit music to use during game play by searching another app.

“It’s like app-ception,” said Ian, an eigth grader from Urbandale.

This is the second year Drake has put on the summer app camp. In 2012 the camp was only held for one week and hosted just 12 students. This year 60 students attended over the two weeks. Organizers were pleased to see that the majority of the first week’s campers were girls.

“Hopefully we can plant some seeds with this younger generation to make them more computer literate and computer science savvy students,” Urness said.

By the end of the week, Urness hopes to put the students’ work on the Google Play Store. That way you can download Space Battles at home and blow up the moon for yourself.


Credits: Photos by Frank Merchlewitz

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