Why This 7-Year-Old Is the Doogie Howser of Videogame Design

Takepart.com

It’s not unusual for a seven-year-old girl to dream of being a ballerina, but it’s unheard of for a child so young to design a computer game about it. Nonetheless, first-grader and computer science prodigy Zora Ball did just that, making her quite possibly the youngest videogame programmer ever.

Using an open-source software program called Bootstrap, the primary school student designed a mobile game app she titled Vampire Diamonds. In it, the player takes on the role of the main protagonist, a ballerina, whose goal is to search for a jewel that’s hidden in a nail salon, while trying to avoid an evil vampire.

The game debuted at FATE’s Bootstrap Expo last year and while widely acclaimed, some were suspicious that the first-grader may have secretly received help—most likely from her older brother, Trace Ball, a STEM Scholar of the Year. To prove them wrong, the seven-year-old reportedly reconfigured her app on the spot.

Bootstrap, and its functional programming language Racket, are usually taught to kids between the ages of 12-16 as a way to use videogame development to teach algebraic concepts to students. Zora learned it in an after-school program run by the educational nonprofit known as FATE, or The Foundation for the Advancement of Technology in Education.

Kelly Ohlert, FATE’s executive director, tells TakePart, “While Zora was able to follow the directions in order to write the code for her game, everything we know about cognitive psychology indicates that a seven year-old probably can’t yet comprehend the curriculum-based algebra that is the heart of Bootstrap. That being said, she understood enough of the coding side to make simple changes to her game upon request, which is huge.”

FATE’s mission is to promote the skilled and intelligent use of education technology. Ohlert tells TakePart, “Specifically, we are targeting the problem of not having enough students trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to meet the needs of the next-generation workforce.

According to the Brookings Institute, the U.S. is already suffering from a lack of professionals qualified for STEM careers. Part of that lack comes from the fact that so few women are involved in science-based professions. That’s why tech companies are targeting girls and young women for more education and employment opportunities. In addition to FATE, which targets boys and girls alike, Microsoft sponsors DigiGirlzHighTech Camp, “Girls Who Code” offers free summer workshops to female high school students, and Womens’ Tech Connect mentors young computer scientists involved in the science education program through NetHope.

While Zora Ball is still too young to think of her new role as the poster child for girls in science, her recent accomplishment is another kick in the slowly opening door for girls to embrace STEM-based fields.

Related Stories on TakePart:

• Girls Love Science Too: 5 Tech Toys to Inspire Your Daughter

• 'Girls Who Code' Combats the Gender Gap in Computer Sciences

• More Time in the Womb = Higher Math Scores

A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer.  In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a webeditor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for TimeOutLA.com. Email Andri | @andritweets | TakePart.com