Students help program science computer game

Middle and high school students spent a little more than four weeks this summer at McKinley Technical High School in Washington, D.C., developing the programming and modeling for a prototype of an educational computer game called Immune Attack 3.0.

Last year the students used the free educational game to learn, by aiming to make science fun and engaging for students. This year, they’re putting their programming and modeling skills to the test to help the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) update the game.

“Lots of schools are using games to teach their students,” said Rick Kelsey, director of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at McKinley. “But this year we’re taking it a step further. The new version of the game will be played by students all over the country.”

The program was set up more like a summer job than summer school, said Chris Johnson, a modeling instructor at McKinley’s summer youth program.

“The programming department had to work with the modeling department and make sure that everything was making sense and would work together. So they’re getting real-world skills,” he said.

Mitchell Holmes, a McKinley student who will be entering the 10th grade this year, said he knew he wanted to be part of the program, because he hopes to enter a career in graphic design when he finishes his schooling. This was his first year working with the “Be the Game” program headed by Kelsey, a summer program that is funded by the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program.

“Immune Attack” is a three-dimensional game that provides scientifically accurate simulations of the immune system, with imagery designed by medical illustrators. Players navigate a nanobot through 3-D blood vessels and connective tissue in an attempt to save an ailing patient by retraining her non-functional immune cells.

McKinley students worked with Melanie Stegman, program manager of learning technologies with FAS, who met with the instructors and students to determine the design of the game. She said she hoped that Immune Attack 3.0 got the students interested in concepts such as what chemotherapy looks like and how mitochondria move.

“It’s the curiosity that you need to get them to want to learn. … Plus, in this game, the whole point is to save a life–not to kill it,” she said, alluding to the violence seen in other video games.

In programming and modeling for Immune Attack 3.0, both the students and college-aged instructors had to learn more about the immune system.

“I can’t lie. I learned so much this summer,” Johnson said. “We had to use Google and Wikipedia a lot so we could learn what things looked like, and since we did 3-D animation as well, we needed to know how things moved.”

Ciara Belle, a programming instructor, said she and her students had to learn about the neurological and respiratory systems to make sure the programming they created made sense. The programming students created four mini-games that will be used within Immune Attack 3.0.

“If you click on objects and text pops up, you can learn the details” about different parts of a cell, for example, Johnson said. “But if you play a mini-game, there’s more incentive to learn. It keeps the kids engaged more.”

Kelsey said the point of the program, and what they do at McKinley in general, is to expose inner-city children to technology from a young age.

“If you don’t have technology skills, there’s not a job out there for you,” he said. “So they leave here with 21st-century, college-level skills by participating in something we wouldn’t be able to do during the school year.”


Be the Game

Immune Attack

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