Middle School Students Succeed at National Technology Competition


Submitted photo Quentin Farrell and Malaki Taub hold their 2nd place trophy with advisor Kim Gilreath after returning from national competition in Atlanta

A trip across the country, without parents, to compete at the national level, was a dream come true for two Icicle River Middle School (IRMS) students.
Quentin Farrell and Malaki Taub, upcoming 8th graders, qualified to attend the Technology Student Association’s (TSA’s) national conference in Atlanta, Georgia, by winning first place in Washington State in the category of Computer Coding. They traveled with their teacher, Kim Gilreath, and the Washington State TSA contingent to Atlanta on June 21st where they converged with 8000 students to compete in categories ranging from Digital Photography and Dragster Cars to Structural Engineering and STEM Animation.
            To get there required a lot of hard work. TSA is only in its second year at IRMS, though the organization has existed for forty years and has 250,000 middle school and high school members in 2000 chapters nationwide.
            Jodi Tremberth, 8th grade science teacher and the other TSA advisor, explained, “The IRMS TSA began in the 2016/17 school year. As part of bringing Career and Technical Education (CTE) to our STEM Science classes, we are required to have a student group. We chose TSA because it offers a diverse range of events that meets students’ interests. It is also an opportunity for students to test their skills in computer science, engineering and problem solving in a fun yet competitive environment.
            “At the beginning the year, students look through the list of competitive events that sound interesting to them. If it is a team event, then they group themselves or pair up. Many students work on projects during their lunchtime or at home. The projects really are the students’ work, and we only act as guides and ensure they have the materials they need.”
            Coding is a bit different, because its format is impromptu. At State and Nationals, students are given a prompt for a computer game, and they have four hours to meet all the requirements, using a program called Scratch.
Taub and Farrell were excited about their game at State. For that one, they had to make a ghost busting game in which the player has ten seconds to click on a ghost as it appears. The game needed to have score keeping.
“As we were making it, I could tell our game was going better than the other kids’,” said Farrell. “They had good art, but we had a start screen. Some had different types of ghosts, but ours was the only one that had a way to lose points by accidentally clicking on bystanders. Malaki came up with that idea. I programmed it in a way so the ghost appearances are shorter and shorter over time but the bystander appears for longer.”
Before they left for Nationals, Tremberth said, “We have a very talented pair of students heading to Atlanta. I hope we make at least the top ten in Coding, but I am just proud of them for placing 1st at state and all their hard work this year. Being eligible for Nationals says a lot about their determination, strength as independent learners and knowledge in Coding.”
            The Coding event at Nationals had two parts. First the students had to pass a written Coding test. Only half the teams made it on to the second part of making a computer game. Taub explained how that worked, “The prompt was to make a bug-catching game where the player played as something that could catch bugs by colliding with them and had to catch five bugs in under a minute. If the player succeeded, a message would pop up onscreen saying, ‘Player Wins.’ If he or she failed, a message would also pop up onscreen, only it would say, ‘Bugs Win.’”
            At the awards ceremony on the last day, Farrell and Taub got to stand on the stage to receive their large trophy for 2nd place in the nation. Gilreath said, “It was so exciting to see the boys win second place! They felt confident, and because of their confidence I expected them to get at least top ten.”
How did they beat out a couple dozen competitors? Farrell had a few ideas. “Having to use strategy to decide where to place walls to help you catch bugs in our game, versus the others’ games where you just randomly moved around, was one thing that set our game apart. The second thing was the creativity that Malaki put into our story, which a player would read before playing the game.”
Taub’s and Farrell’s differing skill sets made them a strong team. “At State I came up with ideas, and Quentin coded them into the game. At Nationals, we did the same thing, except we tried to swap roles in and out over time, to increase our teamwork factor,” said Taub.
Farrell said, “Malaki’s enthusiasm made me more excited about our game.”
Kim Gilreath was with them every step of the way, including driving them to Seattle to catch their flight to Atlanta. “While traveling we had to be focused on knowing where to go and staying together. Malaki and I weren’t experts at travel, so Ms. Gilreath was extremely helpful, making sure nothing was forgotten,” Farrell said.
Six days in Atlanta allowed for some fun time too. Both boys loved visiting the World of Coca Cola, where they sampled dozens of beverages from around the world. “At Six Flags I loved the roller coasters,” said Farrell. Gilreath added, “I enjoyed talking to teachers and students from others states and school districts. There was a good mixture of scheduled events and opportunities to explore Atlanta.”
Going to Nationals has helped these two students look ahead. Taub said, “Nationals helped me realize I liked video-game making as much as I liked robotics.”
            Farrell felt empowered. “I’ve never had a leadership role in anything, but I find I take leadership roles in small group activities at school. Getting second place at Nationals for Coding is a good reason for me to want to be TSA president of our IRMS chapter next year.”
 

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