Young game programmers receive $3,000 contract

Posted Dec. 16, 2010, at 3:23 p.m.

The zombies materializing on the computer screen weren’t the most detailed of monsters, but gunning them down was fun enough. At the next table a spaceship waited to be maneuvered through a maze of moving blocks, then on to find a golden key. All of the technological entertainment was designed and programmed by college students — and there were prizes at stake.

Eight teams of University of Maine students set up a laptop arcade in the lobby of Jenness Hall on Thursday, Dec. 9, to showcase the computer games they created in COS 125, an introductory course on computer programming.

The six-student teams were in competition for a $3,000 contract with The Jackson Laboratory to write a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) educational game for distribution to Maine schools. Representatives of the laboratory joined students, professors and guests as they tested the games.

“I’m really impressed,” said Dr. Randy Smith, director of educational programs at The Jackson Laboratory. “I really appreciate what I see for results from students starting from ground zero — just the fact that they aren’t crashing.”

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Smith took into consideration team dynamics and cohesion, creativity, code organization and the final written report. Wednesday, he announced Team 3, who created “Escape From Neville Hall,” as the winners. The team includes Brian Annis, Aaron Bickford, Ryan Boisclair, Nicholas Lee, Matthew Provost and Nicole Golden.

In their game, the player must work their way through a series of math problems and a variety of games to escape Neville Hall, where their class is held.

The students used Python programming language to design the primitive games.

“Being someone not in computer science, it was a challenge to try to think more analytically and for [the rest of the team] to see where I’m coming from,” said psychology and sociology student Nicole Golden, 34, of Bangor. “Once we reached that level, we were able to learn from each other. That’s what makes a project successful.”

Golden was one of the five women taking the course out of 48 students, and she drummed up the final documents for Team 3.

“We need to get more women into computing,” said George Markowsky, professor and chairman of UMaine’s Department of Computer Science.

Markowsky said this is the first semester he has taught game programming for the introductory course. He intends to repeat the competition each semester but can’t guarantee that The Jackson Laboratory always will offer the internship.

“We’re in the babbling stage — there are other, more robust languages — we’re just making noises right now,” said Golden. “I used a computer every day and didn’t know how it worked. I have a newfound respect for kids to sit in front of a computer and start programming on their own. It’s really a hobby for many.”

Golden describes programming as a puzzle. Modules are parts of the game, puzzle pieces to be combined using the Python language to create the full picture.

“A computer doesn’t know how to do anything unless you tell it to,” she said.

In addition to the five-week paid internship with the laboratory, students were competing for prizes of $100, $80 and $60 for games voted by game testers to be the best in the exhibition.

Team 4’s “Zombies on the Mall” was voted as the top game and received the $100 prize.

“In our first group meeting, we tossed ideas around,” said computer science student Nathan Eldridge, 21, of Brewer. “We wanted to do something students recognized and could connect to.”

The game is designed after a physical, competitive game that UMaine students play on campus each year, in which students run around with Nerf guns, turning each other into “zombies.”

On the computer screen, the player shoots zombies while moving about a green rectangular space lined with trees — a venue representing the UMaine Mall at the center of campus.

“The internship is definitely a strong motivation, and I don’t think our game would have been as good without it,” said Eldridge, who aspires to work with artificial intelligence used in robotics.

“Biology has changed in the past 10 years. Computer skills are important when it comes to informatics, functional genomics and computational biology,” said Smith. “We want to attract computer students to do internships.”

By Wednesday, Dec. 22, the members of Team 3 will receive a set of possible project ideas for an educational software game. They’ll pick from among the ideas and then write, test, document and deliver the final software by Feb. 15. The team will be awarded a $3,000 check from the Center for Genome Dynamics at The Jack-son Laboratory to split among the six members.

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