Young game programmers could be key to future development of U.S. industry

Kathleen Chaykowski / Bloomberg News /


Published Aug 31, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

NEW YORK — At 12, Alex Foyt is already a veteran of creating online games with 98 titles in six years, including a survival challenge that involves dodging carrots and chickens falling from the sky.

The secret to Alex’s game-making prowess: He learned coding with a programming language called Lua, which relies on easily understood syntax, before going on to master more advanced software- development tools.

“I really want to be a computer programmer and build my own codes for a living,” said Alex, of Albany, N.Y., who recently trekked to Santa Clara, Calif., for a conference sponsored by gaming site Roblox.

Lua is one of a handful of visual coding languages that are helping kids try their hand at software coding amid a boom in online games and applications for devices such as Apple’s iPhone. The user-friendly tools are being popularized by sites like Roblox, a platform that lets users create and play games with interactive animations from zombies to medieval fortresses. They could be instrumental in helping fill what companies like Google and Cisco Systems say is a shortfall in U.S. engineering talent.

“The big thing that is slowing the tech sector down is a lack of labor,” said Steve Cooper, who teaches computer science at Stanford University. “If you go to a college job fair, employers will call out and say, ‘Come over here if you’re a computer scientist.’ ”

Turning kids on to programming early could be crucial for the United States, which is lagging countries such as India and China in its ability to crank out qualified engineers. The U.S. ranks 23rd among developed nations in terms of the percentage of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering among those employed between the ages of 25 to 34, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2011.

“It starts at elementary school,” said Gordon Coburn, president of Cognizant Technology Solutions, a provider of consulting and outsourcing services. “By the time they get to college, they have no math skills. There aren’t enough people with the skills, and we’re hiring as many qualified people as we can find.”

While Lua is two decades old, it has taken on new life in recent years because of Roblox. Founded in 2005, the website drew 11 million unique visitors in July, most ages eight to 14, and its users have created more than 8 million games.

Lua is also used by Corona Labs, which provides a platform for making mobile apps that is gaining traction alongside older entry-level languages such as Alice, which is about 15 years old, and 6-year-old Scratch.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen this explosion of engaging students and in teaching them the basic concepts,” said Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association. “Alice, Scratch — they’re becoming incredibly popular because students love them and can do real, creative things with them.”

Take Robert Nay, a teen from Spanish Fork, Utah, who used the Corona social development kit to build a game called Bubble Ball at 14. The game, which requires players to use simple physics principles to get a ball into a goal, has been downloaded more than 15 million times and some weeks has ranked higher than “Angry Birds” on Apple’s App Store.

“I just made a game that I wanted to play and I thought it would be fun,” Robert said. “For a career, I probably want to do something computer-related. As I was learning Corona, I was also learning syntax.”

Nay has since learned Java, a more advanced programming language used to build websites, games and applications.

Alice, Scratch and Lua-based platforms help make programming more prevalent among elementary and middle school students and teach them problem-solving skills that translate to other languages such as Python, Java, Ruby and C++, said Brook Osborne, director of outreach at Duke University’s department of computer science.

“When you understand the concepts of programming and how to think like a developer, learning the syntax isn’t a problem anymore,” Osborne said.

Some young people are picking up coding skills from online programming classes offered by startups, including Udacity, Codecademy and Coursera. More than 1 million people have taken Codecademy courses since its introduction in August 2011, and elementary school teachers through college professors have used the material in their classrooms, said Codecademy co-founder Zach Sims, who said learning coding is the “new literacy.”

By themselves, online courses and kid-friendly languages aren’t enough to get many young people up to speed on software, said Stephenson at the Computer Science Teachers Association.

“Part of the problem is that the kids who we really want to engage are not necessarily going to go looking for these tools,” Stephenson said. “We need to provide every kid with the opportunity to know this type of knowledge exists.”

Her group advocates introducing computer science classes earlier, in elementary and middle schools. According to a study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of software developers will grow 30 percent from 2010 to 2020. That compares with 14 percent for all occupations, the study found.

“We see students coming out of university now overburdened with debt and unable to get jobs,” Stephenson said. “And we see the computing field desperate for people.”