Giving through gaming

By Ashley Dean, News Staff

The sixth floor of Boston Children’s Museum was packed May 12. Laptops around the room displayed video games like Yoshi’s Story, Dexter’s Fury and Luigi Volleyball, all created by middle school students.
The young programmers, dressed to impress, proudly explained the algebra behind their games to parents, other students and even a film crew from Microsoft, which sponsors Bootstrap, the program in which the students participated, along with Northeastern and Google.
Bootstrap is a program from Citizens Schools,’ a non-profit organization that provides educational opportunities for middle school students across the country. Since the program was founded in Boston in 1995, the schools have been using real-life projects to teach students various academic subjects, said Citizens Schools Teaching Fellow Anna Drapkin. Drapkin said Citizens Schools currently works with 44 middle schools in seven states. The schools have about 3,800 students and 3,200 volunteers, she said.
‘I think the coolest part was when we made the player move,’ said Ja’Shun Williams, a 12-year-old student in John W. McCormack Middle School in Dorchester and the creator of the game Dexter’s Fury.
‘We had a lot of code to make the game,’ he said. ‘It was pretty hard, but we got through it.’
He pointed to the poster he made for Dexter’s Fury, which was part advertisement, part math lesson. He explained how algebraic functions control everything in his game, and how variables affect even the smallest details.
Williams said he wants to continue studying programming in high school and maybe college. He also spoke highly of his teachers, Northeastern computer science freshmen Adam Heaney and Tom Fiset, saying they were good teachers and a lot of fun. Heaney and Fiset said they had fun and were learning as well.
Fiset’s major is officially computer science and mathematics, and Heaney’s is computer science game design. They said the program helped solidify their studies at first, but now they’re both learning how to teach and have taken a liking to it.
‘I wouldn’t have even considered [teaching] if it weren’t for Bootstrap,’ Heaney said.
For 90 minutes a day, once a week and nine weeks a semester, Heaney and Fiset taught about 15 Boston-area students how to program a video game. This semester, they worked with students from Dorchester and Roslindale.
The students learn using Dr. Scheme, one of the first programs Northeastern programming students learn how to use. The program uses algebraic functions to create sounds, images, words and other aspects of a video game.
‘Bootstrap covers a lot of the earlier stuff from college,’ Fiset said. ‘It helps a little bit in class, but more of the learning for us is teaching experience.’
Over the past four years, Citizens Schools has had help from about 40 to 50 Northeastern students, said Emmanuel Schanzer, a program director for Citizens Schools. Schanzer, the creator of Bootstrap, has been teaching kids advanced algebra through video game programming since 2004.
‘My main focus is the math’- programming is the vehicle,’ Schanzer said. ‘Our goal is to expose kids to algebra in a way that’s applied, concrete, relevant and fun.’
By participating in Bootstrap for two semesters, Fiset and Heaney also had the benefit of having their public service requirements waived. They are considering volunteering for the summer program, which will take place at Northeastern.
‘Without Northeastern, we would never have this,’ Schanzer said.