Middle-school kids create a virtual future in 3-D

SPARK students

Three middle-school students spent 10 weeks as apprentices at UIC’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory, creating a video game. Photo: Lance Long/EVL

For anyone interested in computers, the Electronic Visualization Laboratory seems like Wonderland, with incredible computing power, walls covered in video displays, and CAVE2, the world’s most sophisticated 3-D environment.

For the past 10 weeks, three Chicago elementary-school students have been EVL apprentices, developing their own project and learning what a career in computer science could be like.

“The first thing we did was give them a tour of the lab and show them all our toys,” said Victor Mateevitsi, who with three other graduate students at the EVL — Alessandro Febretti, Khairi Reda and Galen Thomas-Ramos — have been mentoring the boys.

“We decided to make a game,” said Antwan McBee.

He and classmates Andrew Lewis and Joshua Gartley, seventh- and eighth-graders at Irvin C. Mollison Elementary, 4415 S. King Drive, used their apprenticeship to develop a game based on Fruit Ninja.

The main action? Hitting furniture and other objects with swords in the CAVE2 environment.

Last Wednesday, the boys stood in the center of the immersive 3-D environment enjoying the culmination of their work — waving virtual swords, whacking objects whirling by and scoring points to the rousing theme from “Star Wars.”

“We all had put in our ideas and it was really good,” Lewis said.

The computer science grad students and middle schoolers were matched by Spark Chicago, an organization that places students from underserved areas into hands-on apprenticeships with volunteer mentors.

Spark identifies students “in the middle,” who may be becoming disengaged from school as they enter the tween/teen years. The program links the kids with mentors who are working at careers that align with the students’ own interests.

“We don’t aim for the super-star class president students, or the most troubled student,” said Anna-Clair Whitehead, director of external relations for Spark Chicago.

The 10-week apprenticeship introduces students to a working world they would never see otherwise. The idea is to “spark” the students’ engagement with school by reinforcing the link between careers and education.

At last week’s demonstration, researchers and graduate students gathered to watch as Joshua, Andrew and Antwan swung their swords, racking up points. Reda and Mateevitsi started and restarted the game, trying to work out the bugs.

The goal was to give the students a real taste of what it’s like to create a video game.

“We’re not training them to be programmers,” Febretti said.

The youngsters walked through the same steps they would take in the industry: storyboarding the game, building 3-D models and understanding how each piece is added to create the game, Febretti explained.

“We conferenced about the game and we drew pictures about it,” Gartley said.

Each student designed and created virtual 3-D objects, including a house, an airplane, a chair, a banana and a pizza.

When the game is on, these objects zoom around. Each player gets points for slashing his rival’s objects and loses points if he hits his own.

The rapport between the youngsters and graduate students was evident. And as the game continued, everyone in the EVL stopped by to see what these neophyte computer scientists had created.

For more information about volunteering or donating to Spark, visit sparkprogram.org



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