Students Create Games that Focus on Global Issues

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Hannah Wyman, 10, winner of computer game prize, the Kodu Cup.

The Imagine Cup competition is aimed at college-level students, and some 400 of them are here in New York City this week for the 2011 Finals, showcasing the technology they have designed and built. These are undoubtedly some of the brightest young technologists in the world -- there are teams here from 70 countries -- and they all have varied backgrounds that have led them to become engineers.

For many students, college is the first opportunity they have to take computer science courses, so it can be intimidating for novice programmers to walk into classes where a good chunk of their fellow students may already have a lot of skills and knowledge. It's a bit like walking into an Introductory Spanish class and finding that, in fact, half the class has spent the last 10 years living in Mexico.

One solution is to start students programming earlier -- before college, and as I've written about before, there are numerous ways that computer science can be introduced to kids who are quite young. One of those tools is Microsoft's Kodu.

Kodu is a visual programming language made especially for creating games. Kodu's language is entirely icon-based, fairly easy to learn, and aimed at kids 9 to 17. It works on PCs and on the Xbox.

Microsoft recently held its Kodu Cup, a competition for budding young programmers and game-makers in the U.S. One of the prizes for the winners was to get to come here to New York for the Imagine Cup Finals.


I had a chance to sit down today and talk to the Grand Prize Winner, 10-year-old Hannah Wyman. Hannah's winning game is called Toxic, and with it, players collect coins and hearts while solving puzzles to help save the environment. Hannah says her game is about how the environment is getting polluted and how we need to teach kids about pollution. "I tried to make a game that inspired kids to make the world a better place. I wanted to make it instead of just a regular game, that you could learn from it."

I asked Hannah what made her start programming, and she confessed when she was younger, she didn't like computers. "There was just something that didn't make me excited," she said. But she credited her computer science teacher with showing her "all the neat things they could do, and that's what made me really start to like computers." She said she started playing around with Kodu and liked building fun games.

But "fun" is only part of what interests Hannah. As her game highlights and like the students here, Hannah is interested in making a difference. Hannah said that her favorite presentation here was Azmo the Dragon, the game that we covered here yesterday and that helps kids who suffer from asthma to maintain regular breathing tests with a fun and innovative mobile game. Hannah also suffers from asthma and said she liked the fact that it helped kids and saved them from trips to the doctors.

Hannah says she plans on continuing to build games -- she wants to work more on Toxic, making it more challenging, for example. She's interested in working with other computing tools but stressed that she was really interested in not just building things that were fun but things that helped make a difference.

As Hannah's interest in computing demonstrates, in order to pique kids' interest in programming, it helps to show them how their work can make a real difference.

Disclosure: Microsoft paid for my travel to the Imagine Cup