Microsoft mentors inspire future coders with retro gaming

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The ‘Softie in Question: Sue Loh

Job title: Sr. Software Development Engineer, Windows Phone Client

Remember Hunt the Wumpus?

If you played computer games in the 70s or 80s, you likely recall huddling with friends around your family’s computer and evading bats and bottomless pits in search of the sinister Wumpus.

For those who think that Sonic and Super Mario Brothers are the ancient history of gaming, Wumpus (originally released in ’72) may seem as useful as Sanskrit or wooden tennis rackets. But wait up… while it may not be as instantly gratifying as Portal 2 or Modern Warfare 3, a mentoring program at Microsoft has found that the relative simplicity of Hunt the Wumpus has immense teaching value.

Microspotting hunted down Sue Loh, who has worked on Wumpus outreach for 6 years, and got to the bottom of this program’s success.

Sue, tell us the goal of the Wumpus high school outreach project.

We pair Microsoft mentors with computer science classes at public high schools with an aim to increase the quality, quantity and diversity of high school students choosing computer science as a career.

Why use Wumpus and not a more contemporary game to teach students?

These days, kids look at a game – and while it may be fascinating – it is hard to understand what makes it work.

Like the difference between looking at the engine of a 1950’s Chevy versus lifting the hood of a new car?

You could say that. Back when games were simpler, you could see how they were actually put together.

And, we’re not just asking the students to recreate Wumpus as it already exists. We get them to build the game in a new and exciting way.

So, the Wumpus outreach complements existing programming classes in high schools?

The idea is not to simply teach programming. That’s already out there.

Our point is to give them a project that a) teaches them teamwork and b) forces them to design something.

Do they struggle with that new responsibility?

The students get really excited at the beginning of the school year. They start throwing around ideas and writing code. But then they tend to get confused because it is more free-form than anything they’ve experienced. Some kids just freeze up like a deer in headlights and expect to be hand-fed the answer.

There aren’t black-and-white problems or ready-made inputs. They must discover the problems on their own and – most importantly – they must figure out how to work through those problems together.

Is there an eventual “ah-ah” moment?

Once they make that mental jump and start to design and use creative problem solving they become inspired and things move quickly.

Did you get any opportunities like this when you were in high school?

Not even close.  I was an army brat. I moved around a lot and went to high school in a podunk Utah town with almost no computer resources.

What, then, was your first exposure to creative programming?

One day, my dad came home with a Tandy TRS-80 color computer and a book on how to program in BASIC. I studied the booklet on my own and discovered that I could get the computer to do what I wanted. The more I learned; the more I could do. I got really excited about it and, by the 10th grade, I knew I wanted to go into computer science.

I was lucky that I found such a good fit, but not everyone is so fortunate.

[Editor’s note: Although Sue is too modest to admit it, she taught herself so well that she went on to get her BS and MS from another “podunk” school called MIT]

Is the Wumpus program a way to give back?

Like many people at Microsoft, I want to help the next generation get involved in computer science. You could say that I have the itch to give back, especially to offer encouragement to young women who are potentially interested in programming. Unfortunately, the numbers of female programmers are still very low.

What are your favorite parts of the Wumpus program?

This process shows the students that they’re capable of accomplishing bigger things than they’d ever imagined.

Sometimes they take things completely in their own direction. Instead of bats and bottomless pits, they come up with all sorts of stuff, like dolphins and whirlpools. Some students even made the game 3D.

It’s amazing to see them get so creative.

Sue works as a Sr. Software Development Engineer in Windows Phone. Interested in positions in her group? More information can be found here.

 

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