In Pacific Middle School computer lab, students design award-winning games

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 
photoBritton Johnson, a seventh-grader at Pacific Middle School, works with a video game in the school’s computer lab during a lunch break. Students in teacher Patrick Kutkey’s advanced computer course learn to design games to improve code writing and other skills. Members of an after-school computer club earned design awards at a recent regional competition.
photoStudents work on a whiteboard behind the screen in the Pacific Middle School computer classroom lab.
photoA screen shot of a video game adapted by Pacific Middle School students. New 3-D technology has opened broad new options for students’ game designs.

Funny thing is, their mentor wasn’t a fan at all, initially.

“I hated computers. Really, I couldn’t stand them,” said Patrick Kutkey, a 12-year Pacific Middle School instructor with 17 years of classroom experience.

He found them more tiresome than handy. “It was painful,” he said, recalling clunky models and days of floppy discs and no hard drives. “If you wanted to get anything done, you had to pull out the manual. I tried to avoid them, as much as possible.”

Then, the grade school teacher found his new Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School in Vancouver crawling with Macintosh computers. He had marching orders to use them.

He helped students play “Sim Ants” (the object for a band of ants: team up, battle rivals and infiltrate a human home to drive away its residents) and “it just all sort of started to click,” he said.

“I actually learned a lot about how to use a computer, playing that game,” Kutkey said.

Now look: His computer lab in Room 306 bustles with excited students, where he leads sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders through essentials. They come to learn keyboarding, how to prepare smart Power Point and other digital presentations, and, ultimately, to write HTML and other software code.

Then there are the games, more intricate and clever than ever — easily the best way to get youngsters’ attention, and, just as Kutkey found, a great way to master computer skills.

“Once they see how relatively easy that is, they’re hooked,” Kutkey said about steering students to invent new games, or put new twists on existing ones.

That’s been the draw of his after-school computer club. And, participants have gained plenty of knowledge and won some nifty hardware, in the form of trophies won in regional competition this spring, by dint of creativity, problem-solving and persistence.

“The toughest part is when it doesn’t work and you can’t figure out why,” explained eighth-grader Matt Arnett, 14.

He, Alex Freeman, Aaron Rasmussen and Nathaniel White teamed up to design “Into the Inferno,” a game that requires a firefighter to identify and douse different types of fire (chemical, electrical and such) and rescue people from several rooms of a burning building.

Dubbed the “Banana Smoothies,” the group captured a middle school title at the Oregon Game Project Challenge held last month in Salem, Ore., besting nine other squads.

A second Pacific team with members Steven Arbuckle, Nash Lillienthal and Ryan Perkins placed in a separate category.

Arnett’s father is a Hewlett-Packard Co. engineer, and game design lets him better understand that work, he said.

Alex Freeman, an eighth-grader, sought adventure when he joined Pacific’s second foray into the regional contest, which in its fourth year also drew two dozen high school teams from Oregon and Washington, including groups from Union and Evergreen high schools, the latter earning awards.

“I thought, ‘Why not make games so I can play them?’ ” said Alex, 13. “I thought it was fun, and I get to make new friends.”

That made up for an extra hour spent after school each week to collaborate on a new game, from October to January, then twice weekly once the Oregon sponsors declared a “search-and-rescue” theme for the 2011 contest. “It’s worth it, altogether,” Alex said of the long effort.

Background research

Kutkey’s club got some expert outside advice. He invited Vancouver Fire Capt. Rick Steele from the nearby Pacific Park station, along with two colleagues, to tell students just how common fires, earthquakes, flooding and even tornadoes are here, and to provide disaster preparedness pointers.

The firefighters shared job insights to give the team entries more authenticity. But they don’t write code, and Kutkey made sure to abide by the rules that students must invent and problem-solve their own games, with limited guidance.

Most students quickly match a creative spark to fast-evolving skills, and they have a blast.

“I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” said Allegra Delamarter, 14, an eighth-grader who produced “Shadows,” a role-playing game with animal-human characters. She’s had fun using animation to bring life to her story-writing talents.

Eighth-grader Chris Culley, 13, played “Inferno” and gave it a stamp of approval.

“I can definitely see why this would be a first-rate game,” he said. “It’s pretty fun, and kind of addicting.”

Culley appreciates the effort, having labored to build his own maze game. “It’s really hard,” he said, yet the work appeals to him. “I’m really technical … really a logical person. I like thinking and designing things.”

Kutkey, who has experience writing technology school curriculum, calls new 3-D and other animation features amazing, opening new windows for students. The work slips right into STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, core lessons heavily pursued by Washington and U.S. public schools.

Building fundamental skills helps create a “digital citizen” ready for the 21st century, he explained. And, an engaged and able student.

It’s not for nothing he’s hung a Garfield poster on his lab door.

Quoth the cartoon cat: “The best computer is the one between your ears.”

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.