An outreach opportunity hosted by Illinois CS professors Eric Shaffer and Mariana Silva during the fall semester helped local middle school students learn about their own capabilities in video game design.
It’s a powerful moment when students realize that computing provides an opportunity to create something of their very own.
During the fall semester of this academic year, 11 students from Campus Middle School for Girls in Urbana signed up for an after-school outreach opportunity hosted by Illinois Computer Science professors Eric Shaffer and Mariana Silva.
By the end of the semester, they realized what they could accomplish.
The students and professors met once a week to discuss video game design – a subject Shaffer teaches in CS 415 Game Development. Shaffer and Silva discussed game related topics like art (perspective projection), physics (how computers simulate gravity), AI (how a computer can solve a simple puzzle), and played some mathematical games and virtual reality games.
But at the very core of the experience, were games the students began designing themselves.
“One of the good things about video games as a topic for students of this age is that it’s at the intersection of many different fields,” Shaffer said. “It’s not just about math, or physics, or computing. It’s also about art and narrative, creative aspects like that. We hoped to share an opportunity that showcases computing as a way to build things, creative things.”
After working on their designs, the Campus Middle School students turned them over to Shaffer’s class in CS 415 for development.
The powerful moment – the one Shaffer and Silva were curious would happen the way they envisioned – occurred during the final meeting at the end of the semester.
The Campus Middle School students then saw and played the games they thought of, and the Illinois CS students breathed life into.
Shaffer thought they were happy in that moment.
Silva, whose own daughter attends Campus Middle School and participated in the outreach opportunity, confirmed this thought.
“Very happy. They were very happy. Not only did they play their own games, but they also played each other’s games,” Silva said. “Between playing their own games first and then seeing what everyone else created, they were thrilled to see all the designs they worked on.”
Campus Middle School for Girls Executive Director, Tami Adams, said the students “were so excited to see their ideas come to fruition.” Many discussed it among themselves and to Adams for a while after the program ended.
That kind of moment, though, speaks to something larger.
CS alumna Diana Huang explains breaking into game development, reconnecting with students
Diana Huang: I'm a developer on the Experiences team at Rec Room. We oversee user experience across the game which encompasses gameplay, user controls, UI/UX, creator workflows, etc. I would say that this aligns with my professional goals, especially being on a team that is close to the player experience. What I find the most exciting is being able to see players immersed in the game, knowing that I played some part in the creation of that experience.
What did it mean to you to speak with this specific group at Campus Middle School for Girls?
It meant a lot to be able to share my experiences with Campus Middle School for Girls. As someone who has encountered opposition and barriers in this field of computing and game development, specifically, I understand the importance of encouraging the next generation to relentlessly pursue their interests. I'm only here because of women who have paved the way for me, and I'm happy I had the opportunity to pay it forward.
Halfway through university, I had my first coding project via the Intro to Unity course that Professor Shaffer taught. Even though it was a rudimentary pinball game, I had a lot of fun developing it. That helped build confidence in my ability to seriously pursue this.
When you work in the games industry you are not just working with other programmers you are working with artists, designers, composers and people from all sorts of backgrounds. You're all working together to build an experience you want other people to enjoy and appreciate.
My main goal was to share my experience as someone who works in the industry. I hoped to convey that there are people in the industry who want to see a broader range of voices and ideas. I wanted to share the winding path I found myself on during college and in the subsequent years following. As a recent alumni, I feel my experiences can strongly relate to current students and possibly shine a light on a path or option previously unnoticed.
Most of the key moments that convinced me to pursue game dev happened outside of the classroom. Through GameBuilders, I worked with other students to develop several small games, a collaborative atmosphere mirroring what I see in my current work life. And Mechmania, the 24 hour AI hackathon, was especially rewarding because it was an opportunity for me as a student to feel the rush that comes with sending your ideas and curated experience into the real world and having a community, even if briefly, take part.
One of the strengths to Broadening Participation in Computing at Illinois CS is that it goes beyond sparking a new interest; it delves further into understanding of the topic to help students form thoughts of their own future professional pursuits, and how computing might fit within it.
That, more than any other part of this program, is what interested Adams. She hoped her students would be exposed to an opportunity that allowed for a greater understanding of computing at a time when the workplace values versatility.
“The world is no longer separated into individual categories, in terms of careers,” Adams said. “Gaining perspective of this at a young age can really help students as they explore who they are, what their strengths are, and what they want to do ‘when they grow up.’ So, any chance we get to expose our students to potential career paths is always a win.
“The idea of connecting CS with the arts gave students a chance to see how they could use their creative talents in STEM. When students learn they can use their strengths across various areas, the world can really open up.”
Since he began teaching at Illinois CS in 2014, Shaffer has focused on topics that have a natural connection to some exciting aspects of the field – including virtual reality and computer graphics, as well as game development.
Between years of experience teaching these subjects, and the fact that both he and Silva parent children of the same age, gave the professors confidence about the subject matter.
Like with most things new, though, both found some surprises along the way.
“We learned a lot more than probably we expected, because what the students like turned out to be different than what we based on our own kids’ interests,” Silva said. “We both have kids at that age, so we were like, ‘Oh, we know what they like!’ But not everybody’s like our kids. So sometimes we missed it. We were like, ‘Dang it, we thought this was pretty cool.’”
Both professors did come to understand that lessons focused on the pure math and science behind computing needed interaction – rather than just lectures.
Shaffer and Silva said the participatory lessons turned out to be the most successful. Well, those lessons and the ones that either included a competition against Shaffer or VR goggles.
They also had a Zoom session with recent Illinois CS alumna Diana Huang (CS + Linguistics ’19), who works as a software engineer for the video game company, Rec Room, in Seattle. Huang’s work proves what students, just like these 11 at Campus Middle School, can be capable of in the computing industry.
“This was the first time that I had attempted to teach or engage with an audience of that age, other than my own daughter,” Shaffer said. “So, it was interesting to see what sparked interest and what didn't. And when we did have days in which things worked really well, it was super gratifying.”
Moving forward, Shaffer and Silva said the effort will most likely continue – just with different guidance as their fall semester is simply too busy next academic year. In their place, the CS STARS will help create the next outreach opportunity.
“The STARS are going to take what we learned and try to refocus more on digital art as a route to garner interest. And if it works well, there is the possibility of doing this at other places locally, or beyond,” Shaffer said.