Bryan Childs was only in middle school when he became interested in computer science. Self-taught, he began learning about coding from designing text adventure games. And today, Bryan works as a software developer and helps to keep the IBM z Systems mainframe secure.
Yet sharing the possibilities of computer science with young people has been an interest of his for a long time. Years ago, Bryan’s middle schooler daughter Claire also expressed interest in computer science. But she felt discouraged from attending an upstate New York summer tech camp, and he was keen to understand why.
Opening the Toy Box for STEM inclusion
Claire was deterred by the camp’s curriculum, Bryan learned, which leaned on militaristic combat simulation and other “edgy” material geared toward boys. Later, when she became the only girl in her high school’s advanced placement computer science class, Bryan saw a connection. Perhaps, he thought, gender isn’t considered in STEM outreach as much as it should be. Maybe an inclusive approach to computer science could attract a range of young people to the field.
In 2014, Bryan participated in an IBM THINK exhibit event at Disney World’s Epcot Center. The focus was Disney Infinity, a gaming platform where kid users can choose from a broad selection of Disney characters in pursuit of their own adventure. “Video game design has long been touted as an early education tool for computer science,” Bryan says, “but only recently has there been an intentional outreach to girls.”
Bryan was inspired by the program’s widespread appeal. In 2015, he continued Disney Infinity’s outreach at home in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he formed a volunteer group and developed a program for elementary and middle school students based on Disney Infinity’s Toy Box software engine.
The group’s efforts evolved and expanded to other school programs. Most recently, Marist College students led an “hour of code” event in April of last year. The college students were the volunteer instructors, teaching computer science to Hudson Valley-area students using the IBM Activity kit, Toy Box Club, which Bryan created.
Play the game
The Toy Box program Bryan helped launch continued to expand. It began as a five-day event at Disney taught by Bryan, IBM volunteer Steve Jones, and both of their daughters to an audience of 600 kids.
Back in Poughkeepsie, Bryan and other IBM volunteers eventually took the routine to the Adriance Memorial Library, and Newburgh School District’s Excelsior Academy (a Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH school). Claire, now a college student, also volunteered at one of the Poughkeepsie Library’s Toy Box programs. Her major is computer science and math.
Bryan and his IBM colleagues had higher expectations of the P-TECH students, as they were older and could handle more rigor. The students formed teams and met weekly throughout the school year with the IBM volunteers. “They designed and built their own Toy Box games,” Bryan says. The games were submitted to the Walt Disney Company, and their work become available on Disney Infinity's community content database, playable by Disney Infinity's supported gaming platforms, around the world.
Soft skills too
The kit Bryan developed has become a valuable resource in teaching problem solving through video game design. “Now the kit includes startup instructions with 28 interactive lab exercises, all with walkthrough tutorial videos,” Bryan says.
In 2016, IBM volunteers created a web app, an online reference to the Toy Box's programmable Creativi-Toys. The web app is an open source contribution to the recently released IBM On Demand Community activity kit, Walking on a Cloud, a beginner's guide to Bluemix, Cloudant, Node-RED, and Watson APIs, and available for volunteers to use with students.
Computer science wasn’t the only subject being taught during the team’s volunteer hours, either. They found that the students inherently learned “soft skills” related to the broader project. Communication, responsibility, balancing function with quality, and good time management all came into play, Bryan says, especially with the older kids.
Bryan wants to continue working on collaborative, virtual methods of teaching computer science. Disney Infinity’s online services will be shut down in March of this year, but he’s hopeful that the Disney Infinity Toy Box might be rebooted elsewhere, through licensing the intellectual property. The educational value is just too great.
“There is a national emphasis on early computer science education and there is increased momentum in collaborative team STEM projects,” Bryan says. “If, or when, that reboot occurs, I also hope IBM is considered for their infrastructure needs.”
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