December 17, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Top Tools for Computer Science Learning, AR/VR, and Game Design

Adafruit

Teachers are eager to bring computer skills into the classroom. But with a dizzying array of online tools to choose from, figuring out where to start is anything but obvious. To help navigate the ever-evolving terrain, School Library Journal hosted an hour-long conversation with four respected K–12 educators who teach coding and computer science.

In the resulting webcast, “60 Tools in 60-ish Minutes,” coproduced by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), sponsored by Capstone and Mackin, and moderated by SLJ executive editor Kathy Ishizuka, participants shared their go-tos for computer science, virtual reality (VR), and game design.

Whether you’re working with elementary schoolers or experienced coders, there are enough sites, tools, and apps to meet students wherever they are on their coding adventure. We’ve rounded up some of the top recommendations from the webcast to help you get started.

THE EXPERTS

COMPUTER SCIENCE

Webcast participant Rafranz Davis (@rafranzdavis), the executive director of professional and digital learning at Lufkin Independent School District in Texas, works with students of all ages, so she needs tools and sites that accommodate different levels of coding experience.

Adafruit This online clearinghouse for educational electronics is where Davis heads for most of the tools and coding kits she uses with students. An education kit, specially designed for teachers, with servers, clips, and charging cords, is available for about $100. The site also provides beginning programming and coding projects. It’s where Davis herself went to bone up on programming.

Microsoft MakeCode This website can help teach students how to work with block code—prewritten scripted bits that give beginners an easier way into coding. Davis pairs MakeCode with Circuit Playground Express for tinkering activities, such as measuring fidget spinner rotations or coding light displays. There are simple precoded projects for younger students.


Jordan Budisantoso (@jordanbudi) started off with what he calls “real-life programming tools” for students—sites he considers core to working with the children at Washington Leadership Academy in Washington, DC, where he is the founding computer science teacher.

Cloud9 An online developer space, this site offers unlimited student accounts and workspaces in its education area. The cost: $1 a month for teachers and librarians.

CodeHS This platform contains a full complement of computer science tips, tools, and coding lessons—great for teachers who may not have any background in the area themselves. It hosts student and educator accounts for free.

GitHub Budisantoso takes kids here first to learn some basic coding skills. The code-hosting site offers educator accounts, where teachers and librarians can find starter code for students.

Google Coder Projects With step-by-step tutorials, these projects get students comfortable with code. One of Budisantoso’s favorites is a simple pop-up penguin game, which teaches basic HTML and CSS skills.

Hour of Code Meant for kids and educators with no coding experience at all. One activity that stands out to Budisantoso is a Flappy Bird–style game, which students can customize to make a flappy shark or flappy walrus—or any flappy creature they want.

Scratch While Scratch is simple enough for elementary school students, it can be rigorous enough for high schoolers.

Thimble A favorite editor tool of Budisantoso’s, this is a great place for students to start writing HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

AUGMENTED AND VIRTUAL REALITY

A-Frame This site helps students build VR experiences on the web using HTML. The projects are viewable and playable on devices, including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Cardboard headsets.

Budisantoso’s own walkthrough Budisantoso created a cheat sheet for these sites to help students get started building VR content.

P5 Using this JavaScript library and HTML, students build animated and interactive projects.

Unity This 3-D building engine is excellent for students of all levels, from novices to experts. Free courseware is available.

Combining art and design is a growing area in coding. Budisantoso uses several sites to encourage students to think about ways they can link their coding skills to creative projects, having them start small and build from there.

To say Jaime Donally (@JaimeDonally), founder of ARVRinEDU and #GlobalMakerDay, is enthusiastic about augmented and virtual reality would be an understatement. She is passionate about immersive technology and says educators needn’t make big purchases to get started with students.

ARKit Apps Apple’s ARKit is providing some truly robust ways for students to engage in augmented reality (AR). One of Donally’s favorites is World Brush. Like Google Tilt Brush, it lets users paint imagery on top of real-world spaces. In the Orb app, students can take simple geometric shapes and manipulate them to build anything from garden gnomes to gazebos. Figment AR includes a gallery of options, from dancing turkeys to snow, that can be placed as 3-D objects in virtual spaces. Students can also upload their own 360-degree images. Finally, Atlas is a human body that can be explored on a minute level from veins to organs.

CoSpaces Through this site students can tap into multiple resources, from simple drag-and-drop programming to more complex coding tools such as Blockly and JavaScript.

Merge VR

Merge VR Donally likes the Merge Cube, a new device built by Merge VR that hosts different AR experiences.

Metaverse This site is not for beginners, Donally says, as it requires basic computer science skills. But kids who have some coding under their belts can create their own apps and invite others to play.

Qlone This fairly new app first creates a digital scan of a physical object, which can then be digitally edited. The result is a 3-D object that can be printed or uploaded into AR or VR spaces.

Roundme This site gives users 15 free 360-degree image uploads every month and lets them insert text, comments, and hyperlinks. Students can label and create portals from one image to another.

Storyfab This AR smartphone app (iOS and Android) transforms any space—your bedroom, your classroom, your street—into a movie studio, where kids use virtual sets, actors, and special effects to create their own short films.

StreetView Students can create 360-degree experiences here, sometimes better than what’s made from a 360-degree camera, says Donally. The site works on both iOS and Android devices.


GAME DESIGN

Steven Isaacs (@mr_Isaacs), a game design teacher at William Annin Middle School in New Jersey, gets kids excited about creating with tech. As ISTE’s 2016 Outstanding Teacher and an event producer of Minefaire, a Massive Minecraft Fan Experience, he knows a thing or two about online gaming.

Edorble This virtual environment enables students, teachers, and trainers to convene and collaborate in a 3-D world.

GameMaker Studio In this drag-and-drop envi­ronment, students develop games from scratch.

Gamestar Mechanic Students can design their own games, then play through and share them. The site is also part of the National STEM Video Game Challenge.

Minecraft Not surprisingly, this is a favorite of Isaacs’s, particularly Minecraft: Education Edition, which is licensed to schools. The recently added Code Connection extension uses Tynker, ScratchX, and MakeCode and then executes the code right in Minecraft.

Modbox This game design engine supports both development and game play in VR.

Paint 3D Anything built in Minecraft can be exported to this 3-D modeling application, letting users add details (like eyeballs), textures (sand, rocks), and lighting effects to their creations, which they can share on Remix 3D.

Tinkercad

Snapguide One of Isaacs’s favorites, this tool lets kids create tutorials so they can share what they’ve learned with others. There’s a Snapguide for just about everything, from how to save Instagram photos on a computer to how to make a fireplace in Minecraft.

3dSunshine This program allows kids to build with LEGO or Minecraft blocks in VR.

Tilt Brush Isaacs uses this “pretty incredible” tool on the HTC Vive, which lets students paint their own worlds with a virtual brush. The brushstrokes appear as physical objects that kids can walk through.

Tinkercad Using this browser-based 3-D design tool, students build models that can then be brought into Unity as VR structures.

Unity Students can build environments in VR on this game development platform. The software is free for educators.


If even this list seems daunting, pick your top three tools and do some exploring before diving in with students. You might be surprised at how much fun coding can be.

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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