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News Release

Teaching Kids How to Code

San Diego, Calif., Jan. 14, 2014 -- Kids shouldn't have to wait until college to learn programming-and to learn that it can be fun. That's the premise that led computer science Ph.D. students Sarah Esper and Stephen Foster to develop CodeSpells, a first-person player video game designed to teach students in elementary through high school how to program in Java. The pair, along with biochemistry Ph.D. student Lindsey Handley, also launched ThoughtSTEM, a startup that provides computer science workshops, afterschool programs and camps for children ages 8 to 18.

CodeSpells is the only video game that completely immerses programming into the game play. The player is a wizard in a land populated by gnomes. (See image above) The wizard writes spells in Java within the game.

Two students in the ThoughtSTEM program try their hand a soldering.

CodeSpells is available for free download for Windows and MAC at: http://bit.ly/I1peZD

Esper and Foster recently received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's I-Corps program to explore the technology's potential for commercialization. The NSF NSF I-Corp program "really has allowed us to focus on figuring out who our customers might be and how well our product fits their needs," Esper explained.

The two computer science Ph.D. students decided to focus on schools and school districts as their potential targets. After conducting scores of interviews with teachers and principals, they now have a better picture of how to modify CodeSpells to meet educators' needs. For example, the game might have to teach a broader set of skills, not just Java. Meanwhile, ThoughtSTEM has been prospering too. The program started with about two dozen students in a conference room in the computer science building. It now serves about 150 children every week. Students can attend Sunday sessions at UC San Diego and in Coronado, through after-school programs at Gompers Preparatory Academy and Notre Dame Academy, and through home-school programs. Esper is also teaching a ThoughtSTEM computer science class through UC San Diego Extension, allowing middle and high school students to earn college credit. A winter break camp at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is in the works.

"It's very, very exciting," Esper said. "Seeing how much everybody wants this to be part of their life keeps us motivated."

Computer science graduate student Sarah Esper tested the CodeSpells software at Spreckels Elementary School in San Diego.
Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering