A photo of students sitting at a table with laptops looking toward the front of the room.
Ten high school students from the California School for the Deaf, Riverside, participated in a two-day coding camp hosted by California Baptist University. (Courtesy of California Baptist University)

Ten high school students from the California School for the Deaf, Riverside, (CSDR) recently got the chance to develop their own video game during a first-of-its-kind computer coding program hosted by California Baptist University (CBU) and specifically designed for Deaf students.

“CBU has a great Center for Deaf Studies that is involved with the Deaf community and offers a minor in American Sign Language,” Dr. Phil van Haaster, dean for the Gordon and Jill Bourns College of Engineering, said via email. “When the college of engineering realized how we might leverage our student and faculty talent to broaden opportunities for the Deaf community, we contacted the director of the Center, Daniel Blair, and he arranged for a meeting with CSDR.”

Blair, in an interview provided by the university, said that Deaf people have historically been overlooked both educationally and occupationally and are often viewed as being best suited for vocational work.

Throughout the two-day camp, the students learned the basics of coding to create a game similar to Pac-Man. (Courtesy of California Baptist University)

“But computer science, you know, the digital world, it’s lifted the ceiling completely for the Deaf world,” he said. “And it’s a perfect fit, because most of it’s right here. It doesn’t require audible speech or language.”

Through the two-day camp, held March 7 and 21, the students were able to create a video game with a storyline similar to Pac-Man, in which a green snake moved around the screen to gobble up red dots that allowed it to grow bigger and stronger.

“I really like technology,” Darius Zarembka, a junior at CSDR, said in a press release about the camp. “I enjoy playing video games, so I was interested in this camp because it’s my first time creating one myself.”

Erika Thompson, CSDR outreach specialist, said via email that the camp was open to students who initially enrolled in the school’s Information Technology course, which has been delayed until next year, as well as those who expressed interest through email invitation.

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“Opportunities for Deaf students in the community and at local high school programs are limited when it comes to communication access,” she said. “Deaf students need exposure to more experiences beyond [that] of the seven pathways that CSDR currently provides.” 

Thompson said the camp not only allowed CSDR students to realize that coding was not as difficult as they thought it would be, but also gave CBU insight into how they can make classes more accessible to students who are deaf, something van Haaster also noted.

“The pace needed to be modified to allow for translation,” he said. “The faculty was essentially speaking a different language, and although there were no issues with technical jargon, translation paused the rhythm of the teaching.

“One big takeaway was that by including a picture-in-picture of the ASL translator on the student’s computer screen, we could recapture some of that rhythm because the students would not need to look up at the translator as they were coding the algorithms,” van Haaster continued.

He said that this year’s camp, funded by donation, was a pilot to iron out the issues and see how CBU could “maximize learning in a short period of time.”

“Having a donor who believed in the possibilities was a huge help,” van Haaster said. “It is not every day that someone will contribute without expectations, but the primary donor for this camp trusted the college would work with the deaf community and develop something that leads to great things.”

He said he expects to see an expanded program serving even more students next year.

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Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.