HHS Coding
Cutting-edge Hughson High classes uses video games to teach students computer coding skills

Flashy animation. Splashy graphics. Catchy sound effects.

Everyone knows all those things and more are key to hooking potential video game players. But they don’t just happen. In the background, invisible to users, lies the complicated computer coding that enables cars to race and crash, characters to bounce around a screen, guns to blaze, and points or prize incentives to be won.

This year, for the first time, students at Hughson High are being introduced to basic concepts of coding in a fun elective called Programming JavaScript/Game Design. Each day at third period, they file in David Zylstra’s Room 50 at the north end of campus to learn about “while loops,” “program entry points,” “commands” and the difference in “designing vs. calling methods.” By the end of the second semester, the goal is for each student to have enough knowledge to create their own simple video game.

The course is the brainchild of Hughson Principal Loren Lighthall and Zylstra, the Math Department chairman who is teaching it. There are 35 students enrolled. The idea, explained Lighthall, is to give teens a behind-the-scenes appreciation for the tech skills and knowledge that permeate their lives.

“This is where the world is headed with AI, virtual reality and online programs,” he said. “No one is going to leave HHS and get a job coding right away, but we want to spark an interest and let them know what is possible.”

Zylstra has taught mathematics at Hughson for 27 years – everything from Math 1 to calculus – but he has never led a computer coding course before. In fact, he jokes that his last exposure to coding was as a Modesto Junior College student in the late 1980s. He found the CodeHS curriculum over the summer and began studying it.

“When class started, I was about five modules ahead of the students,” Zylstra said. “Now, I’m about one.”

The students work on the same Chromebooks they use in other classes. Each module, or chapter, of the course is broken down into lessons consisting of video tutorials, short quizzes, example programs to explore and written programming exercises, adding up to over 100 hours of hands-on programming practice. Each module ends with a comprehensive test that assesses students’ mastery of that material.

“Right now, the exercises are 10, 20, 30 lines of code. Later on, it will get more complicated,” Zylstra said.

In addition to the classroom work, the students also took a daylong field trip on Aug. 30 to the Career Inspiration Center run by the Stanislaus County Office of Education at the former Teel Middle School in Empire. There, Zylstra’s class learned more about the kinds of technology being used by real companies based in the region – things like drones, robotics and computer programming.

Zylstra said there is no denying the impact of technology on people’s lives, which is why it’s important for students to better understand it.

“Computers are all around us -- phones, cars, work, school, movies. Just about everything has a computer and it will need programs,” he said.

Gary Coldicutt, a junior, likes to play video games, which is what sparked his curiosity to sign up for the class. Even in the short time he’s been in it, he’s already grown to appreciate how what he’s learning about programming can be applied to other subjects.

“The problem-solving skills might help in other classes,” he said. “If something doesn’t go as planned, what do you do?”

Senior Arelina-Angel Cortez is one of just eight girls in the class. She wants to major in computer software and engineering at Cal State Stanislaus. It’s an area she’s been interested in since she was a middle school student in Ceres and took a computer-related course there. She jumped at the chance to sign up for Zylstra’s elective.

“I thought it was a good opportunity because there is nothing else like it,” she said. “It’s a really good class. It’s fun.”

One of the early lessons involved a character known as Karel the Dog. The students had to write code that allowed Karel to build a pyramid of balls, deliver stacks of pancakes to people, create a tower of tennis balls and leap over randomly placed hurdles as he ran to different sides of a street.

“At first, we just tried to make the dog move around,” Cortez said. “Now it’s more challenging.”

By next spring, the goal is for all the students to have learned enough coding skills so that they can create their own video games as their final class projects. Coldicutt and Cortez said they don’t know now what themes their games might take today, but they and their classmates have a few months to sort that out. The best games from the Hughson class could be entered into a countywide competition against students from other schools.

“So far, class has been great and the students are doing extremely well,” Zylstra said. “I can’t wait to see the different games that they will be designing!”