Project Management with High School Students: Really?

Posted: February 4, 2014 in Mental Reboot, Programming, Teaching
Tags: , , , ,

I had this crazy idea that we should have the kids write a game of their own choosing as their final project for the semester.  I was particularly interested in doing this because even though many of the kids were still struggling with some pretty basic concepts, I felt like we were not tapping into their full potential in situations where we carefully designed each game for them, setting up a smooth path to success.

This was particularly twisted as even when we set up exercises leading up to each unit project, making sure that we had given them all the tools they needed and having helped them solve the hard problems, they still required extensive leading to get to working games.  When they got there at all.  So what made me think that giving them a relatively free hand to write a game of their own choosing would be a good idea?  Am I insane?

Well, possibly.  But I think back to when I was their age and what motivated me to spend hours on end learning the ins and outs of how computers work.  And it really was the idea of being able to create something out of thin air (and bits, bytes, and nibbles) that kept me up nights pounding away on my Apple II keyboard.  So why not take a chance and give them their heads?  So to speak.

Of course if we’re going to let them build their own games we need to introduce them to some software engineering and project management, right?  Oooops!!!  I carefully set up a schedule including time for design and design review.  Built templates for feature and technical specifications.  Sat down with each team to get them to talk about expectations and force them to draw lines either higher or lower on their feature lists depending on whether they were overly ambitious or entirely apathetic (one of the students put “I don’t care” for all three game ideas).  And setting things up so that they had a deadline to get a working “minimally marketable” game by the halfway point.

So despite a crazy month of January labs every team made it through.  But here is the craziest thing:  The students were almost completely flipped between their ambition level and the completeness of their final games.  Now don’t get me wrong, the kids that were totally into it had cool graphics, neat ideas, and all sorts of bells and whistles.  But their games hardly worked.  The kids that were most resistant to doing anything original (including the “I don’t care” team)  walked away with complete and relatively polished games.

In any case, the fact that we got 13 and 14 year olds to actually meet deadlines (at least mostly) was something of a miracle.  So may you don’t need to lock me up and throw away the key for this one.  But the jury is still out if I ever try something like that again.  After all, it’s hard enough to get highly trained (and paid) professionals to code to a deadline…


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