On Saturday, children with Big Brothers Big Sisters were able to let their imaginations run wild, creating animations and games with laughing wizards, hungry sharks and mystical creatures riding on magic carpets.

During a summer camp activity hosted by Missoula’s Advanced Technology Group and Big Brothers Big Sisters, kids learned about the basics of programming using a software called Scratch, which allows users to program characters, or sprites, to interact with their surroundings, objects or other sprites.

The visual language can be connected in blocks, telling characters or objects to move, make sound, display text in a speech bubble, and change costumes and backdrops.

The program allows a user to be as creative as they want, with categories of characters, sounds and motions. Animations can be turned into mini-games with controllable sprites and scoreboards.

Each pair of kids created their own animations after a few ATG employees showcased their creations and demonstrated how the software worked.

“The most important thing to keep in mind in any kind of programming and especially Scratch, there’s no one right way to do things,” ATG consultant Myles Dauterive said. “There are any number of ways to do things in programming and really, the only right way is the way you want to do things and the way that gets it to work. You’re not restricted to one right answer.”

Big Brother Big Sister participant Nicole said that she’s never tried animation or programming before, but found it to be an enjoyable experience as she created a mini-game with her partner, Anthony.

The animation involved two sharks, one shark being a non-player character that is programmed to move on its own, while the other shark is controlled by the user. To win the mini-game, the user must direct the shark to the fish in the middle of the screen five times before the other shark reaches the fish.

“It’s a lot of back and forth between categories and a lot of repetition and that sort of thing. I wouldn’t say it’s hard,” Nicole said. “Each category is very specific to what you’re looking for, which makes it a lot easier.”

The program has been used not only by kids, but also by college students in a programming introductory course at Harvard and other universities.

With a focus on tech industry development in Montana, exposure to programs like this is important, said ATG’s Kayleigh Blair, a member of the company’s philanthropy committee. The program is very user friendly, allowing kids to learn about technology in a fun and interactive way.

“From a philanthropy perspective, our laser focus is K-12 education,” Blair said. “We’re trying to work with kids and grow that hunger for technology education as well as the enjoyment of it if we can. There’s a lot of different aspects of technology in our world today, and this one is fun, it’s interactive, you can include music if you want, you can really personalize it to what you as the child want to present.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters works with other nonprofits or private companies to host activities like cooking classes and outdoor recreation.

ATG consultant Myles Dauterive showcases an animation he created, discussing the components to creating and finishing a Scratch animation. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)
ATG consultant Myles Dauterive showcases an animation he created, discussing the components to creating and finishing a Scratch animation. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Maria Newbold, a match support specialist with Big Brothers Big Sisters, said that collaborating with ATG was the first time the organization has helped host a group activity in programming and animation.

“One of the big things that stuck out to me about this program is it’s something that I don’t think a lot of kids have opportunities to connect with – learning about tech, learning about coding – and also there are a lot of interests,” Newbold said. “We have a really diverse population of kids in our program, and there’s obviously people who are interested in it.”

Along with its first summer camp, ATG is involved in community stewardship and other programs that teach kids about technology.

Employees participate in the University of Montana Science Opportunities for Kids program, or SOKS, an afterschool program for fourth- and fifth-graders at Bonner, Franklin and Lolo elementary schools where kids take apart laptops and learn about prosthetics. Employees also help clean up the Clark Fork River and implement software for the Missoula Food Bank Network.

ATG’s philanthropy committee plans on collaborating with other organizations to host more group activities that involve technology education during the upcoming school year.