Image courtesy of the Alice Project.

Teens can learn to code during “a day of mad hackery” at Alice Bootcamp

Lewis Carroll, the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” knew how to spin complicated ideas into compelling stories. That’s why his beloved tale is the inspiration behind the name of the Alice Project, which makes the complex world of computer programming easy and fun.

On Saturday, March 3, Pittsburgh kids in grades 6 to 12 can sharpen their coding skills, build virtual 3D worlds and create their own video games at the first ever Alice Bootcamp, an immersive introduction to the Alice programming environment. The free, day-long bootcamp — billed “a day of mad hackery!” — will be held at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty branch and will prepare participants to compete in the Alice Challenge later this spring.

Created in 1995 at Carnegie Mellon University as a virtual reality prototyping tool, Alice has evolved to meet the changing needs of students and teachers. In 2015, its developers moved operations from CMU’s School of Computer Science to its Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) — a fitting tribute to Randy Pausch, the late CMU computer science professor who directed the Alice research team and co-founded the ETC. (Pausch is best-known for “The Last Lecture.”)

Experts from the ETC and Schell Games will be on-hand to provide workshops and one-on-one coaching on everything from storyboarding and game design to animation.

“The most exciting thing is that Alice is a drag-and-drop interface that allows for programming without many of the barriers that limit people,” says Sabrina Culyba, a principal game designer at Schell Games who will help judge the competition. “And you get to work in 3D.”

Culyba adds, “If kids want to get their toes in the water of programming and game design, this challenge is a great way to do that.”

Image courtesy of the Alice Project.
A screenshot of a game created using Alice. Image courtesy of the Alice Project.

The goal is to elevate games as a medium for kids to drive home their ability to transform. One way the experts plan to do this is by showing the breadth of what can be done with games, from basic algebra to storytelling about the refugee experience; there is even a game out there for kids with cancer — Re:Mission — that helps them visualize their bodies fighting off the disease.

“It’s interesting to see where kids focus their time and attention and to see the narrative they come up with,” adds Culbya.

The transformative power of games will be highlighted in the challenge’s Good Neighbor category. Inspired by the legacy of Fred Rogers, this category is about creating experiences that “encourage kindness and responsibility, and help people see their own value in the world.”

Eric Brown hopes the bootcamp will level the playing field by making coding accessible to kids from all backgrounds — and by simply raising awareness that libraries offer these kinds of resources.

“We wanted to interact with kids to see their progress and do something good for the community,” says Brown, the interim director of the Alice Project. As the co-founder of ImpactGames and a long-time participant in Games for Change, Brown is well-versed in using gaming as a catalyst for positive social impact.

“Some kids may not be as motivated by competing, but might be motivated by social change,” he says.

But students aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from the experience.

Though there have been Alice competitions all over the globe, Brown says, “This is a way to engage the teachers in our backyard.”

He notes that the project has generated a lot of interest among teachers who’ve been asked to implement computer science courses. And for good reason: Research has shown that Alice has a measurable positive effect on performance and retention in computer science education. Since visuals and storytelling are essential elements of games, art and English teachers have been seeking opportunities to add Alice to their curricula as well.

“Highlighting the different ways Alice can be used is exciting to me,” he adds.

Registration is now open for the March 3rd bootcamp, which is scheduled from 10 am to 4 pm. Lunch and snacks will be provided. The Alice Challenge is one of many activities celebrating the 10th anniversary of Pausch’s “Last Lecture.”

Top image courtesy of the Alice Project.