The animated lives of 'Young Hacks'

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NORTH ADAMS — For some parents, the idea of their children being immersed in video games all summer is the worst. But some have discovered, through a summer camp program called "Young Hacks Academy," there's some good that can come out of it too, when given the right guidance.

Young Hacks is a summer program that spans throughout New England and New York states, with 41 locations, including one based at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The college also hosted youth camps in science and robotics, creative writing and sports this summer.

Designed for ages 9-15, the week-long Young Hacks sessions help participants build skills in a collaborative and constructive manner, versus kids and teens just clicking and tapping away in silence on the couch at home. Developed in 2013, Young Hacks has a mission of, "encouraging young minds to "turn on" and see how they can become agents of change — future leaders and problem-solvers — through the creative use of technology." The program even comes with its own T-shirt, with the tagline on the back reading: "Problem Solvers of Tomorrow."

For camp newcomers Shaun Thornton and Sawyer Cornwell-L'hote, both rising freshmen at Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton, the problem to solve was not to figure how to play a video game, but how to design a video game that people could play.

Each person focused on his own strengths — Cornwell-L'hote as the artist and Thornton as the programmer — and together spent the week working through plot, metrics and movement.

Corwell-L'hote developed a character named "Vincent," a weapons-wielding hero sent into a computer world to slay a virus. Then, he had to work with Thornton to figure out how Vincent could take action, what codes he needed to look left, right, to walk, to run, to swing a sword, to pose in victory or expire in defeat.

This year, the MCLA Young Hacks Academy was run by students, for younger students, in two week-long sessions. The director for Young Hacks at MCLA was Daniel Heinen, a rising senior pursuing a biology degree with concentrations in biotechnology, computer science and bioinformatics. McCann Technical School student Michaela Huberdeau served as a paid counselor for the program, allowing her to also put her skills and interests to work.

Together, they introduced to the campers three pieces of free online software as tools to work with: Scratch, Piskel, and Stencyl.

Cornwell-L'hote's Vincent is a bit-mapped sprite with a blue shirt and brown hair flipped upward in the front for which Thornton wrote code to animate through Piskel.

Despite being classmates, the two young men had never previously collaborated, but both had been exploring programming concepts independently.

Asked how it felt to be creating a game together, Cornwell-L'hote said, "It's pretty exciting."

Asked if they would continue to collaborate, since a week is hardly enough time to create a fully functioning game, Thornton said, "I think so, now that we have a concept."

"It's been fun to experiment," said Seth Besaw, 11, who, at a neighboring computer station, created a space-themed game with collaborator Chris Macpherson, also 11.

Think. Create. Experiment. Heinen said that's what Young Hacks, and innovation in general, is all about.

Last Wednesday, he took interested members of the camp on a walk from Bowman hall to the adjacent Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation, to give them a taste of the Innovation Lab, which he helped create with faculty support.

The lab looks reminiscent of a traditional chemistry laboratory, with some contemporary twists, namely 3-D scanners, virtual reality head sets and hand controls. A side room to the lab has a lounge feel, with a couch and some chairs, as well as white boards and work surfaces.

"We wanted to create a space for students to come to work and have fun, where they could do some brainstorming, and relax," Heinen said.

Some of the visiting younger students immediately took to the couches, continuing to swipe through levels of computer games they were playing with via mobile tablet devices. But a half-dozen others lined up to test drive the VR equipment.

After Heinen showed them a medical lab simulator — a screen is set up for an audience to be able to view what the user is seeing and doing in the virtual realm — he let them play either a game called "Fruit Ninja" or "Job Simulator," using the HTC Vive setup.

Macpherson couldn't help but geek out by exclaiming, "I feel like I'm holding katanas in real-life," before hacking away at flying pieces of fruit with digital swords.

All fun and games aside, Heinen said VR technology also offers students a "good way to learn things and work together." In the example of the medical simulator, it means the school saves money and has a safe space for students to practice in without a field trip to a hospital or having to get permission for a patient for students to observe and interact with patients.

The advancements in this technology, Heinen, said, is what keeps him and other students invested in studying in this field. "It keeps changing," he said. "There's so much that keeps coming out, you just can't stop learning."


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