OCRI Fall 2010 Day 2

How Mentoring Works

Welcome back to this semester’s OCRI updates. Back in October, we looked at how to kick off a project. Today we’ll talk about learning programming.

Last Monday I visited All Saints High School here in Ottawa. The students there are creating Flash-based games for a class of grade 3 students at a neighbouring grade school.

The neat thing about this particular class is that it’s not a programming course — it’s a course in multimedia. The advantage this brings is that the students are familiar with the ins and outs of design and publishing; this will give us a chance to put some real polish on the finished products. The obvious disadvantage is that most of the students have very little programming experience. This is backwards from usual, and I’m curious to see how it turns out.

We teach in a one-on-one sort of setting.

It’s not usually very effective for myself or the other mentors to lecture the students on how to program. They have a teacher for that, and if we do it too then the students are more likely to lose their enthusiasm and less likely stay engaged and focused. Plus, there are a few advantages to a one-on-one coaching approach:

  1. I can easily and reliably gauge how much each individual student knows about programming. This helps me decide how much of my attention each group will require.
  2. I can customize what I teach each group. Since the students’ games and programming backgrounds are all different, each group will have a unique set of needs.
  3. I can connect better with each student. This is more rewarding for me and for them, and it makes it easier for the students to accept my help.

Since this was my first session at the school this semester (I missed Day 1), I spent most of my time floating around to each group to see what their game was about. What immediately surprised me was how far along all of the groups were. Normally we use Java, which has a much steeper learning curve, but Flash is easy to pick up, especially for students already familiar with tools like Photoshop.

The other big surprise was how much I learned. While I’m an (Adobe-certified) expert in Actionscript, I’m used to dealing with Flash Builder (the IDE), not Flash Professional (the animation tool). So while I was explaining how and why to define a constant, the students were teaching me how to tween a movie clip.

It will be interesting to see how the next few sessions pan out.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be moving away from the design aspects of the games and more towards scripting. Some games will require more of a back-end than others, and especially in those groups whose games are particularly script-heavy, it will be interesting to watch the students adjust from designing to coding.

I suspect I’ll have a fun programming story or two for our next update. Stay tuned!

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