Updated: Dec 15, 2020
“Mohid, so I just turn the spaceship 80 degrees?” 12 year-old Aayan Shivji asks his instructor at Toronto’s Go Green Youth Center’s new Saturday morning robotics program. At this week’s Zoom session, the participants are designing a video game. The program is designed for youth ages seven to 13, but I have to confess, I am having trouble keeping up.
On this day, Aayan is joined by a half dozen or so participants and instructors Mohid Sharif, Haider Ali, Hammad Siddiqui. I’ve joined the oldest age group (known as the Dragons) for the 11 a.m. session, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. As we wait for all the participants to arrive in the Zoom breakout room for the robotics program, a number of people are already asking what the day is going to bring.
My presence doesn’t go unnoticed. In the Zoom chat, Aayan extends his greetings.
“How are you doing?”
“I’m good. I’ve never done this before.”
“It’s okay. Mohid will teach you.”
But once the participants have all arrived and the session gets rolling, I’m not sure he will have much luck! It becomes immediately clear that I am definitely the rookie in the crew. I hear rumblings about a few things that happened during the youth centre’s summer coding program before the students get straight to business on today’s agenda in a program called ‘Scratch.’
I have to google quickly what exactly Scratch is, and discover that it is a free program that allows kids to design their own interactive stories, animations and video games. It seems users of Scratch choose characters, decide how they will move, what they will look like, what they will say and what obstacles they will encounter to create a cohesive game or story. With that heavy-duty bit of knowledge, I decide I’ll give it a try. I get as far as picking my own character, a “Sprite” named Abby, who I am able to shrink and rotate with considerable effort, but I quickly decide my time will be better spent watching the ‘pros.’
For this session, Mohid is taking the participants through a step by step procedure in which the kids create a game where a spaceship tries to evade flying rocks by dodging or lasering them. This involves developing a series of commands using Scratch that string together complicated if/then scenarios that make my head spin. The participants are also responsible for choosing which keyboard keys perform a function in the game. For example, the space bar makes the rocket fire lasers.
“When the rocket ship touches the asteroid, the wand doesn’t follow.” Aayan is one step ahead of the game, and I watch with some fascination as he, Mohid and a number of other participants collaborate to find a solution to this problem. It all sounds like gibberish to me.
As they are working, Aayan unmutes himself to ask, “Mohid, do you have a YouTube channel?” Mohid does not. “Well, I’m going to get a YouTube channel and it’s going to be me playing games I made on Scratch,” Aayan muses. I chuckle, but I am overcome by the sentiment that programs like these are so much bigger than just 45 minutes on a Saturday morning. I am struck by the level of competency and enthusiasm that have run at a fever-pitch throughout the entire session, and I can’t help but think one of these kids is going to be designing my digital pacemaker one day.
The session wraps up with Mohid assigning two homework projects to be completed before next week’s session. Let me tell you, I’ve never heard such an enthusiastic response to homework. “Right on! I’ll do it.” “Ok. No problem!” is the chorus in the Zoom chat.