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UC San Diego computer scientists and graduate students are taking a once-novel approach to getting kids as young as elementary age into coding in the popular computer language Java: turning lessons into a video game.

CodeSpells is based around a wizard in a land of gnomes, who must use a handful of magic spells in order to complete increasingly complex tasks, such as crossing a river or causing a bonfire. After being presented with a landscape to navigate, players are offered the chance to write their own code to alter it: levitating objects, starting fires, or causing their character to take flight, for instance.

In an initial round of testing done for a presentation at the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education conference held in March, developers presented the game to a group of girls from San Diego aged 10-12, provided basic instructions, and left them to explore the game without guidance.

Within an hour, developers say, the students had developed a basic understanding of Java coding and were using their skills to manipulate the game, sometimes writing code to create solutions to challenges that game designers hadn’t envisioned.

UCSD is offering the game for download free of charge to both educational institutions and individuals. Further research is ongoing in local schools.

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