Blogger Kaitlin Frick

STEAM Programming: Coding with Character(s)

Some of you may remember my first post for ALSC, published just a few months ago, entitled An Old-School Spin on STEAM Programming. It’s focus was an at-that-time recent program a colleague and I had run at 53rd Street, where school-age children were presented with a series of Choose Your Own Adventure-style challenges. Each week followed a different theme (pirates, space, etc.), and participants were asked to complete a series of STEAM projects, from pattern matching to coding, to aid them in their quests.

A dear friend of mine (who is one of the best librarians I know) took this concept to the next level by creating a Super Mario-themed adventure that far surpassed the original programming. (No, I’m not putting myself down. Her programming is just so beyond what I could have created, it’s unbelievable.)

To get an idea of how this program came together, I sent some interview questions to the creator herself, Kristin McWilliams of the Houston Public Library.

KF: First thing’s first, tell us about yourself.

KM: When I was working in retail, a co-worker’s daughter was in an MLS program to become a children’s librarian. Hearing about her experience and thinking about the things I enjoyed about my work, like teaching people to use the photo kiosks and helping them select products, I started to consider going back to school to become a librarian. I’ve been a long-time fan of children’s and YA literature, am passionate about diversifying both, and I love to play and be creative, so a children’s librarian seemed like a perfect fit. And after meeting amazing peers, learning storytelling, and working with kids at my first STEAM program, I knew I’d made the right choice.

Currently I work for Houston Public Library, and at the time of this program, I was a combo Assistant Branch Manager/Youth Librarian for a two-branch grouping, which basically meant I got to see twice as many performers and hang out with twice as many kids during Summer Reading. We have several dedicated youth staff in that grouping, but since staff is shared between two branches, we ended up doing a little bit of everything. The biggest program there is our after-school program, which lasts two hours Monday through Friday during the school year. They have crafts, STEAM projects, art, video games, and other activities for kids from 5 to 18 years old.

KF: Tell us about the program you put together – what was the “story” behind it, what were the objectives, etc.

KM: The idea was to find a hands-on, interactive way to introduce school-aged kids to coding concepts. Our library system has a number of coding and robotics kits that circulate between branches, including Robot Mouse, Ozobot Bit, and LEGO Mindstorms, but before introducing any of the tech, I wanted kids to have had a different experience interacting with the concepts of coding; that way they’d have those core concepts to build on and would downplay any intimidation they might feel when a robot is placed in front of them. I also wanted to make sure it looked and felt fun to them. A lot of the kids coming to the after-school programs want to relax and have fun with their friends after a long day of sitting still, listening, and processing a lot of information. So it was important to me this program was fun and also social. The idea was it was like a Super Mario video game: One kid was the character standing in the grid who would be directed through the obstacles, and another kid would be the player using start, arrow, action, and stop cards to create the sequence for the character to follow. Since it was Super Mario-themed, the kid playing the character got to choose a Mario character visor, then the player would direct the character to (gently) kick the brick blocks to collect coins, pick up coins, avoid Bob-ombs, and make it to the flag at the end of the grid. The character would then switch out Bowser’s flag for their character’s flag.

KF: Where did you get your inspiration?

KM: I’ve seen a few articles and blog posts about coding games made using grids, but it wasn’t until I came across a Bob-omb (from Super Mario) paper lantern on Pinterest that I started to think of creating a Super Mario-themed, gridded coding program. Then when I heard about your program and saw your grid with the interactive 3-D props and directional cards the kids used to guide someone through, I really loved the idea and used that as the basis for my program. Then I searched for other props the kids could interact with; I found a lot of fun ideas people used for Mario-themed birthday parties – like a life-sized pipe made out of cardboard and painted green – that were a little too time-consuming or required materials I couldn’t easily or cheaply acquire. So I ended up coming up with my own designs for most of it, using cardboard, paper lanterns, pipe cleaners, paper, a dowel rod, a Styrofoam ball, Velcro dots, masking tape, and some elastic cording.

KF: How much time did you spend prepping?

KM: I actually have no idea how long it took me to create the pieces. I started making them in January and then would work on them just whenever I had time over about a two-month period, minus a few weeks when our after-school program attendance was low and I got discouraged. If I had to guess, I’d say probably a couple hours for each type of prop: Bob-ombs, brick blocks, character visors, the Chain Chomp, the flagpole and flags, and then the coins and their stands. (Though it turned out I had too many props and could have spent less time on them.) As for actually setting up the program, it took me about an hour to rearrange furniture, measure and tape the grid, and add the props to it. The grid did end up being too large, so the next time I do it, it should take less time to set up.

KF: What do you think was most successful about this program? What would you do differently in the future?

KM: The kids really loved being directed through the grid and getting to pick up the coins, avoid the Bob-ombs, and change out the flag at the end. Most of the kids were also interested in creating the sequence to direct the character, but some of them found it frustrating. In trying to make sure the older kids wouldn’t think it was too easy and childish, I made it too difficult. Only one kid was able to successfully direct another through the whole thing. However, the rest of the kids still seemed to enjoy the unsuccessful attempts; one kid even pretended to blow up when directed to a square that had a Bob-omb on it. Also, because of the size of the grid and the difficultly level, it was too time-consuming; with only two kids actively participating at a time, there were some kids who lost interest while waiting for their turn and who ended up doing another activity. In spite of all the setbacks, though, I had one kid who requested the program again the next day, not realizing that it required a bit more time on my part. In the future, I’ll make the grids smaller with fewer elements in them and maybe even have two small grids and two teams of kids who can compete to see who can code and direct their character to the flag first. That would make the program easier and allow more kids to participate at one time.

Have you tried a STEAM adventure program at your branch? Tell us about it in the comments!


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competency: III. Programming Skills.

One comment

  1. Peggy Sullivan

    One of the things I loved about this post was how sure Kristin McWilliams seemed to be that she would do something like this again — always “when” not “if” about doing it again — and always with specifics about new and improved revisions –true marks of creativity, maturity and leadership! Right on!

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