Members of the NC State department of computer science began the first GIDGET Summer Camp in June, a camp focused on “teaching programming fundamentals to ‘at-risk’ boys,” according to the camp organizers.

Gentlemen Interested in Designing Games and Entertainment Technology (GIDGET) Camp offers boys from 5th grade through early high school from the Raleigh North Millbank Court Apartments the opportunity to engage in meaningful game, website and software development projects.

Originally conceived in meetings between computer science faculty, the Raleigh Police Department and the Give Back Organization, a national nonprofit organization aimed at providing mentorship and scholarships to lower-income students, the camp aims to help its campers as well as to foster interest in computer science. Yihuan Dong, a graduate student studying computer science, and Nicholas Lytle, a graduate teaching assistant in the department of computer science, are primarily responsible for directing the camp 

“We wanted to provide a space where they could walk away working on projects, having new skills and a respite from their current situation,” Lytle said. “We’re spending the first couple of weeks building up skills up to a final project to approach a specific topic or problem that they are facing in the community and represent it in games.”

Dong and Lytle had originally planned to only hold the camp for two weeks to teach the campers basic programming skills and expose them to online coding resources, but the Raleigh Police Department extended their support of the camp to allow Dong and Lytle to hold the programming camp for a total of six weeks beginning in early June.

“We would like to teach the kids how to build their own games,” Dong said. “The kids were really excited about building their own games: they didn’t expect that they could build their own in the first week, or even in the first day.”

The campers use Scratch, a website that uses graphical programming to create animations, video games and other creations. Ve’son Grimes, 11 years old, is attending GIDGET camp with some experience already with Scratch.

“This is like a new form,” Grimes said. “I like it now that I am getting used to it. I’m used to being on a computer a lot, so it doesn’t feel like work.”

Most of the campers had never been exposed to computer programming before, and none of them had prior experience in programming games. They all come from a neighborhood in which they are considered “at risk” of low academic performance or emotional and behavioral problems, according to Dong.

“These are kids that live in a complex that has access to gang problems,” Dong said. “During the summer, they don’t have any school work to do, so if they just run around wild in the complex, they are probably being recruited by the gang. That’s the main reason why these children wanted to start with the camp.”

As both Dong and Lytle are TAs for game development courses in the computer science department, both have experience in collegiate programming curriculum.

“I helped run two summer camps and some outreach programs, including the Stars organization,” Dong said. “It’s not too different here. One of the challenges here is getting an understanding of their backgrounds. We’re learning as we go from the police officers and the Give Back organization. It’s finding structure and topics that are best suited for them. It doesn’t make sense to provide curriculum that doesn’t work for this group.”

Dong has never taught children before and finds developing teaching strategies for the camp extremely rewarding.

“It’s totally different,” Dong said. “Talking with undergraduate students, you know that they want to learn. When you’re working with kids, you have to be more patient. They really get bored if you teach lectures. You have to gather their attention every five minutes.”

Since the camp began in June, campers have created their own versions of brick breaker and pong. Dong and Lytle hope that the campers will finish several more games and a website before the camp concludes at the end of July.

Lytle encourages any students or faculty who are interested and willing to volunteer with GIDGET. If you would like to volunteer, contact Nicholas Lytle at nalytle@ncsu.edu for further information.