Teaching Development with Dustin McMurry

Lindsay Schardon (ZENVA)

July 9, 2019 in Success Stories

Phaser Learning and Education with Dustin McMurry

Today we have with us Dustin McMurry, a dedicated high school teacher helping students learn new skills in Phaser and JavaScript.

Thank you for being here with us today, Dustin! We’re very excited to discuss all the successes you’ve made learning Phaser, JavaScript, and other languages. Let us get to know you a bit – how did you get into programming?

First off, I am not a computer science teacher. I teach Spanish most of my day. Phaser and JavaScript were completely foreign to me, and my only connection to code was that I hold a certificate to teach business, which is what computer programming is classified under in Kansas.

My school district wanted to offer coding classes for our students and approached me about how to implement the curriculum. Prior to this, I taught a class covering the use of computer applications such as image manipulation, audio editing, and animation, but making applications was not something we offered. The old class was phased out, and I was willing to learn to code, so “Business Programming” was put on the course schedule.

I had some previous knowledge using BASIC and Dark BASIC, but these are not languages used in most professional settings. I wanted to teach my students something relevant, so I researched popular code languages. Ruby, JavaScript, and Python were continually listed high on the “good for beginners” searches, so I downloaded Python and began work on a Frogger-type game using tutorials on YouTube.

Wow! It’s fantastic to hear how you charged forward with that new responsibility, especially when you would need to learn new coding languages. How did you go from learning Python to learning and teaching Phaser and JavaScript?

While working on Python, I learned about a Kickstarter campaign that Zenva was running. For a very, very reasonable cost, I enrolled in enough professional development to keep me busy for a few years. My district paid for my courses, and I transitioned from Python to working on the HTML5 Game Development Mini-Degree.

My interest in Phaser only came about because of Zenva. I didn’t even know what a code library was. But the Zenva videos were very easy to follow, and I was able to have a game up and running within a few days. My first project, Deer Defender, was written in about fifteen hours- and that is including time to watch the courses. The original state of the game was just the main game scene. Since then, I was able to add the title screen and a game-over function.

I want to point out here that Deer Defender is just a modification of the Road Crossing Game showcased in the Create a Road Crossing Game with Phaser 3 course. I never actually made the Zenva project myself. But the tutorials were easy to follow, and they provided the information in small enough chunks, that I was able to grasp the ideas behind each lesson and use them to make my own projects. After that, I learned about Arcade Physics and began work on Happy Penguin, which is still in the making.

Learning to code through game design works very well for my students and I. The concepts learned can be applied to anything on the internet, whether it is a game or a web page. So I teach game design, and my students are able to generalize those lessons to any number of different projects. We dove into HTML and CSS to complete a website for a local coffee shop, learned about licensing requirements for content, built a koala launcher, and set up multiple game scenes for a “rapper simulator”.

We are really impressed by your dedication to learn, since starting from ground zero as you did. It’s great you’ve transitioned from that level all the way to being able to make games with your students.

Can you tell us what drew you to our courses compared to our competitors? We’d also love to know about how you manage to work on them consistently, and balance your learning with the rest of your life!

What drew me to the courses was the quality and affordability. You get a TON of information when you sign up for a Mini-Degree, and the lessons are easy to follow. You can download all of the finished code to read, and Zenva recently added PDF summaries of the lessons, so you can review everything at a glance.

As a teacher, I am lucky to have time every year to devote to skill development. Most of my coding is at the coffee shop. During the summer, I log in four or five times a week, work through the lessons, and then tweak my own projects. My goal is always to take what I learn and then apply it. When you can create something of your own, that’s when you know you can actually code.

Dustin McMurry and Child

It sounds like you definitely have a system that works for you! It’s great to hear that you’ve used these newfound skills to finish various projects, including helping out a local coffee shop. Could you tell us more about your role in this, and what you’re most proud of accomplishing in regards to these projects?

My school is making a big push now into community interaction. I approached the coffee shop to see if they were interested, and of course, they thought a free website that led to the online ordering system sounded great. They gave me a green light in September. The site, including a Flappy Bird clone my students dubbed “Flappy Coffee”, was finished in March.

One student worked on the game, another on the HTML and CSS for the site, and a third created assets to be used in the game. I helped out in debugging everything when it broke and piecing the individual files into a functioning site. I also run the server where the site is hosted.

The thing I am most proud of is that the website is student-created. I supervised and made suggestions. I helped find solutions to issues that came up. However, the final code is almost entirely original student work.

Kudos to the teamwork between you and the students! That in itself is a learning experience, and we really applaud you supporting a local business in the process. As you’ve mentioned several times, you also pass on your skills to your students.

How do you go about teaching your students Phaser and JavaScript?

This first year was rough. I learned everything I taught about a week or two ahead of my students. Ideally, I would have them enrolled in Zenva courses themselves and be there to answer questions.

My plan for the coming year is to break JavaScript down into its basic parts and then teach what a library is and how to implement Phaser. Concepts to start with are variables, objects, and why the Phaser frame-work- with preload, create, and update- work how they do. From there, we work our way into loading sprites, attaching them to objects, manipulating those objects, and getting them to respond the way we want to.

This is when if statements and for loops come in. Once students have a solid understanding of these concepts, their learning becomes very individualized, as the things they need to learn will vary greatly depending on what they want to be able to do with the language.

Happy Penguin by Dustin McMurry

Fundamentals are deeply important, so this sounds like an awesome lesson plan. We have immense respect for teachers, as although it’s a difficult job with a lot of planning, it’s incredibly important!

Given your experience both as a student and a teacher – what advice do you have for students trying to learn programming? Also, what advice do you have for teachers trying to teach it?

Programming is not difficult. I know there are people right now who think about it as a completely alien skillset, and the idea of learning code seems impossible. Trust me, it’s not. You can learn to create a functional game and a website to put it on in about twenty hours of focused effort.

If you want to teach it, go with the learning by game development route. Kids love this stuff. It is fun, they stay engaged, and they have a lot more buy-in, because they can see their ideas come to life on the screen.

Dustin, let us just say again how happy we have been to chat with you. To finish up, where do you intend to go from here with all the new skills that you’ve picked up?

Finish Happy Penguin and move on to the Matter Physics engine in Phaser. I also need to work on the Full-Stack Web Development Mini-Degree this summer. My game design skills are getting better; however, there is a lot I need to learn to put my ideas online on a site that functions and works well. The Unity Game Development Mini-Degree looks interesting too, so there will be some dabbling there in the near future. I fully intend to generate an income stream creating video games, and with everything I have from Zenva, there is no doubt that I can do it.

Some fantastic parting words from Dustin, and we wish him all the best both in teaching and pursuing his own game projects. This wraps our interview, so a big thank you to Dustin and all the work he does as a teacher.

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