Catholic Free Press

Catholic Free Press Digital Edition

  • Feb
  • 9

St. Anna student visits White House

Posted By February 9, 2012 | 1:51 pm | Lead Story #3, Local

By William T. Clew

LEOMINSTER – An 11-year-old fifth-grader at St. Anna School spent some time in the White House Monday explaining to the President of the United States of America how to play the video game she had created.
When Hannah Wyman was 10, and in the fourth grade, she created a video game called Toxic, in which players must solve problems and collect coins to remove soot from trees, clean the air of pollution clouds and convince people to plant more trees to help clean up the environment.
Maria Marien, technology teacher for St. Anna, worked with Hannah and other students, including a 9-year-old, third-grader named David Gardiner. David, now 10 and in the fourth grade, said his game is called Alien Attack.
Toxic and Alien Attack were entered in Microsoft’s first ever U.S. Kodu Cup, described by Microsoft as “a competition for children and teens to create video games using Kodu, a new programming language. Mrs. Marien said the contest received thousands of entries from all over the United States.
When the judges made their choices, Hannah was grand prize winner in the 9-to-12 age group. And David was first prize winner in the same age group.
St. Anna School was the only Catholic school in the contest, according to Danielle Colvert, principal. And it wound up with the top two prize winners in the age group in the country.
Hannah and her parents went to Washington, D.C. Monday and Tuesday, where Hannah’s game was exhibited at the White House Science Fair, along with winning entries from more than 100 students in age groups 9-to-12 and 13-to-17 from more than 45 states
As grand prize winner of the Microsoft contest, Hannah said she received $5,000 for her family, $5,000 for her school, and, of course, her trip to the White House and visit with the President.
She also gets a trip to the Microsoft Image Cup worldwide finals in New York and a Toshiba Windows laptop, Microsoft Office Professional 2010 and an Xbox 360 console with a Kinect sensor, according to a Microsoft website. David didn’t get the trip, but he did get a trophy, plus a Toshiba Windows laptop with Microsoft Office Home & Student.
Hannah said her game was set up in the White House Blue Room, along with other exhibits. There were displays in the dining room, Red Room and another room, the name of which she couldn’t remember.
When she invited President Obama to  play her game, he told her that he didn’t know how to play video games and would feel like a fool if he tried, she said. So he watched as Hannah operated the game and explained its workings.
“He was surprised when I told him I was in the fifth grade,” she said. Mr. Obama  was “really nice and really friendly.”
When Hannah and her parents were told that she had won and was going to the White House, they also were told that they were not to tell anyone about it. So, when Hannah’s mother asked for the time off from work, she couldn’t tell her employers why she needed it, Hannah said.
And when she came to school, Mrs. Colvert said, she told the principal that Hannah would be out of school for two days to go to the Washington, D.C. area, “but I can’t tell you why.”
Hannah said it was difficult to keep the secret from the Monday they received the news until the Friday before they left.
“I wanted to tell my best friend,” she said.
Mrs. Marien said she had suggested that the students  pick an issue, perhaps social issues or the environment, for their games. She said they should avoid violence or topics inappropriate for a Catholic school. She said she helped them with coding, gave them freedom to do the work, and checked to make sure their programs worked. They worked for 1 1/2 months, she said.
“I admired their perseverance,” Mrs. Marien said. “They never game up.”
Hannah, who has a small laptop computer which kept crashing, said there was a time that she felt like quitting but she decided to stick it out.
When the projects were completed, Mrs. Marien had students at the school test them. She said they were given survey forms to fill out to critique the games.
She said she also explained to Hannah, David and others the value of criticism.
Hannah said the criticism  bothered her “a little,” but not much.
“Good criticism is  helpful,” she said.
David rated the criticism as “half and half, a little helpful and a little not helpful.”
The games were submitted to the Mircosoft contest and, “ a month or two later,” Mrs. Marien said, the winners were announced.
David and Hannah received praise for their work on the Microsoft News Center website.
It was an impressive field of entries, said Brad Gibson, senior program manager of Microsoft Research’s Future Social Experiences (FUSE) Labs. FUSE Labs developed Kodu, the kid-friendly programming language for creating games.
“These kids, frankly, did things in Kodu that I hadn’t thought of before. Kids had zombies and fantasy worlds, monsters and infectious diseases, mythical heroes – there was just this incredible variety,” he said. “On one hand you say, ‘Hey, they’re kids, you expect a lot of imagination.’ But when you see the depth of gameplay and the richness of the stories they created, I think many of these kids could be on their way to being world-class game designers.”
Hannah’s game and its message impressed the judges, Mr. Gibson said.
“In Toxic, we loved the idea that your character will ‘save the world’ by bumping soot off trees to help them breathe better, by cleaning the air, and by convincing friends to also plant more trees. We thought the overall game was very well put together, especially considering the age of the programmer.”
He said Hannah’s story is exactly the reason Kodu was invented – to encourage young people (including some as young as 5 years old) to become interested in science and technology and to perhaps even pursue those fields in college.
The number of students studying college-level computer science in the United States declined 63 percent from 2000-2004, and the number of women studying in the field, already well below 50 percent, is also on the decline, Mr. Gibson said.
David’s game, Mr. Gibson said, is both “delightfully whimsical” and jarring. “You can’t sit around and look at the scenery in Alien Attack — with blips and missiles incoming from almost the moment you start the game, you have to keep moving to survive.”
Hannah is the daughter of Amy and Raymond Wyman of Leominster. She has two older brothers, Tyler, who is studying computer games engineering at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, and Nathan.
David is the son of Cristina and Brian Gardiner of Leominster. He has two younger siblings, Andrew and Elisabeth.