Campers at UI have fun, G.A.M.E.S.

Campers at UI have fun, G.A.M.E.S.

Playing a computer game will never be quite the same for Becky Pinckheard.

"Every time I look at a game from now on I'm going to go, 'Think how much trouble those people had to go through,'" the ninth-grader from Roscoe said at the University of Illinois on Friday.

"Those people" are the programmers behind the magic. And Pinckheard's new perspective comes from a week spent learning about computer programming at the 2003 UI Girls' Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering and Science (G.A.M.E.S.) Camp.

The 30 eighth- and ninth-grade girls at the camp, some from as far away as New York, used the skills they accumulated to design video games, which they presented on Friday in a game fair held at the camp's culmination.

"They're learning actual programming and applying it to a really fun area," said Aimee Rickman, director of the camp. "It's the only camp of its kind in the nation."

The camp is hosted by the UI Women in Engineering Program and the College of Engineering, which started it in 1998 as part of an attempt to attract more girls to technical and scientific careers.

The idea is to excite the participants by letting them explore engineering, math and science through demonstrations, classroom presentations, hands-on activities and contact with mentor-figure women in the fields, including UI faculty members and students.

The program has always included a structures camp, which took place last week, where the girls learn engineering principals and end up building, for example, mini bridges. The camp's computer session was added last year.

The girls at the UI this week received a crash course in NetLogo, a system designed to teach students programming, spent a session on Tuesday planning their projects and then got down to making them happen on the computer screen.

Pinckheard and her partners Yesol Han, a ninth-grader from Urbana, and Alex Ross, a ninth-grader from Highland Park, created a game they called "Ding Dong Tip."

The object: Run through a maze and tip cows for extra time while avoiding angry farmers.

"The farmers are chasing you and if they hit you, you die," Pinckheard said.

Being in East Central Illinois seems to have inspired agricultural themes.

Shaivani Khanna, an eighth-grader from Champaign, and her partners made a game that involved catching falling apples in a basket. A red apple caught counted for a point, three points for green and minus five for black.

"You have to catch as many as you can in the time you're given," Khanna said.

Meanwhile, Erica Smith, a ninth-grader from Champaign, and her partners went with a subject bound to create a hit: the young wizard Harry Potter.

Their game required navigating Harry through a maze while avoiding dragons, Deatheaters, giant three-headed dogs and other obstacles familiar from the popular book series.

Don't think the camp was all fun and games, however.

"We learned like a lot every day," Pinckheard said.

Khanna and Jennifer Roloff, an eighth-grader from Urbana, said programming with NetLogo was difficult and confusing when they started, but got better as they gained experience.

Katie Legan, an eighth-grader from Carbondale, has her doubts about a career in computer programming. But she knows she wants to come back to the UI camp next year.

"There's lot of errors and then you don't know what to do with it and you want to kill the computer," she said. "It does interest me. It's just a lot harder than I thought."

You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at kline@news-gazette.com.

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