The computer science classroom at United Technologies Center is covered floor-to-ceiling with brightly-colored video game posters and quotes from students about why they love the classes taught there.
After school, students work quietly, seated sporadically at the clusters of desks, almost all home to two computer monitors.
The left-hand screen displays lines of code, a foreign language to the untrained eye. The right, a preview of what the systematic keystrokes creates. To Bradley Oaks, 18, a senior at Hermon High School, the two screens make perfect sense.
A simple change to the complicated code can move an object or change its color.
“I’m fixing the barbarians because they’ll just randomly stop.” Oakes said as he typed away at his keyboard.
Oakes and the other dozen or so students who spend at least two hours in this classroom after school every day are part of The Maine Game Club, a group of 20 students from different area high schools who are interested in digital art and programming. It serves a dual purpose of educating young programmers and inspiring the next generation who may just be the ones to bring tech into the forefront of Maine’s culture and economy.
Supporting motivated students
UTC computer science teacher Mike Preble started the club last year after several students asked about learning more than was offered in his regular classes.
“They didn’t just want to make something, they wanted to learn,” he said.
Preble started with the basics, teaching students how to write various code languages. When they mastered that, they dove into college-level material. Last summer, the students went through an entire semester of college work including mid-terms and finals in eight days. Every one of them passed with flying colors.
Four of the students, who are mostly high school juniors and seniors, were recently recognized as the best youth video game programmers in Maine after winning a statewide US Skills competition. They will head to Kentucky this summer with their game, a spinoff of “Clash of the Clans,” to compete against other states’ top programmers.
But the young men and women also want to inspire other students. As part of the recent Maine Science Festival, several taught workshops to more than 50 teens and their parents about how to make video games using the Unity game engine. They are now working on six different mobile and desktop games for the Maine Discovery Museum and the Challenger Learning Center of Maine.
“This is a group of really motivated students,” Preble said. “They really want to start forming relationships with business and organizations and leveraging those to get professional work.”
Each game teaches the user through play. For example, a space-themed frisbee golf game requires the player to consider various planets’ gravitational pulls when trying to “throw” the disc a specific distance or speed. Another requires the player to avoid space junk.
The games are a chance for the students to put what they learn into action and create portfolios they can take to college or potential employers.
“There’s not a lot of opportunity for students who are interested in this kind of thing so we wanted to make our own opportunity,” Preble said.
An evolving culture
Students regularly ask Preble, who graduated from USM with a degree in computer science, about where they should go to college or look for jobs.
He has a hard time answering that question knowing there isn’t much to offer them in Maine. None of the state’s universities offer video game majors and there are only a couple of small local companies that do game programming.
As a result, many students start looking to head out of state for college or hope the skills learned will eventually transfer to different fields.
It’s a problem, Preble said, explaining that while Maine has “pockets of innovation” and has seen an increase in startups in recent years, it lacks a sense of cohesiveness.
“We are all too spread out as a state … [plus] Mainers are pretty humble and that doesn’t lend itself to widespread collaboration,” he said.
Most of the students in Preble’s classes and the club say they would stay in Maine if given the chance.
“This kind of student is highly motivated, very smart and talented. If they were given the opportunity to stay local, they would, Preble said.
However, George Markowsky, a computer science professor at the University of Maine, said students shouldn’t discount Maine too quickly.
He said it’s important for young students to realize the culture of the tech industry is changing and shared 2011 census data that showed the value of electronic exports in Maine was more than three times that of lobster.
While Maine may not be home to massive programming campuses like Activision, which is based in San Francisco and produces popular games like Call of Duty, Markowsky said he knows “a significant number” of people who live in Maine and telecommute.
“It isn’t that tech doesn’t happen in Maine, it just hasn’t been realized,” he said.
A bright future
When asked if tech and students like Oakes have a future in Maine, Markowsky is quick to respond.
“Tech has a future everywhere,” he said.
He points to Maine’s laptop program as an encouraging example of the state and supporting students who may not even realize they’re interested in pursuing computer science.
“We need to think about things we can do to keep our young people involved in the cutting edge of technology,” he said. “The more we can do to prepare them for the future, the better.”
Back at the UTC classroom, that means preparing to teach others about their passion. This summer, the “senior” programmers in the club will offer a science camp for local teens ages 13 to 18.
Students also want to stay abreast of the changes in their field. Many mentioned how quickly technology changes and know they must do what they can to keep up. But that’s half the fun.
Quinten Campbell, 18, a student at EMCC who still attends the club, said he started playing video games on a Nintendo 64. Now, the graphics and play on that console can’t even compare to the options gamers have these days.
“It shows you how fast technology changes and where you can go with it,” he said. “It’s exciting to see growth.”