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Learn to Program Your Own Gameboy

Pennsylvania Convention Center, 115B

Explore and create: Exploratory Creation lab
Preregistration Required
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Director of Digital Innovation
Western Springs, District 101
Steve Dembo is the middle school Computer Science/Artificial Intelligence Teacher and Director of Technology at Quest Academy in Palatine, IL. He is the co-author of the book Untangling the Web: 20 Tools to Power Up Your Teaching and the president of the Skokie/Morton Grove District 69 School Board, serving his third term. Dembo is a dynamic speaker on the capabilities of social networking, the power of educational technologies and the potential for digital content to empower teachers to improve student outcomes.
Constructing Modern Knowledge
Constructing Modern Knowledge founder Gary Stager is co-author of “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom” and author of “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer + 50.” In addition to being a popular keynote speaker at some of the world’s most prestigious education conferences, Gary Stager is recognized for his pioneering leadership and outspoken edtech advocacy, especially for programming, physical computing, and learning-by-doing. Dr. Stager led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools and played a major role in the early days of online education. This will be his 34th ISTE/NECC as a presenter.

Session description

Ingenious, new, inexpensive handheld technology has emerged affording remarkable opportunities for kids to use constructive technology to create and program something they love to create games indistinguishable from what they otherwise just consume. Marrying new hardware with an accessible block-based programming language is cause for celebration and widespread implementation.

Purpose & objective

There are several companies manufacturing programmable Arcade game boards that are quite similar to the BBC micro:bit and programmable through the most popular software for the micro:bit, MakeCode. Each of the new boards, ranging in price from $25-$35 (at press time), feature an 8-bit color display, 6-8 buttons, speaker/buzzer, and a micro-USB port for connecting to a computer. Some of the boards feature sensors, accelerometers, and on-board power. Some may even used as the brain in a DIY robot.

Write a program, save it to the Arcade game board, attach a battery, and you have a handheld game machine that will amaze, delight, and entertain your friends. You can even connect two boards together and play head-to-head games that you programmed! Stick the board in a cardboard box, attach a $10 Raspberry Pi Zero, some buttons, and an old display, and you have an arcade machine!

I’ve worked with these boards in the hand of kids and have been impressed by the magic they are able to create quickly. The MakeCode tutorials for the Arcade boards seem more interesting and easier to follow than some of the early materials created for MakeCode. The simulator is quite useful (finally) too in that you can program an entire game and test all of its functionality before you copy the program to the board.

“Making,” actually programming and designing your own video games, for a handheld game machine embraces youth culture in a way that pushes the boundaries of learning by making and builds upon constructionist traditions.

The presenters recently led a successful 12-hour workshop on this topic at the Invent to Learn Chicago Institute.

The presenter has dozens of these handheld devices for workshop use.

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First 10 minutes
• Introduce MakeCode Arcade and the variety of microcontroller development boards compatible with it
• Situate this innovation within a tradition of making, computer science for all, and constructionism
60 minutes
Provide participants with good prompts and support materials for designing their own software for use on the handheld gaming devices.
20 minutes
• Share projects
• Explore microBlocks (software) and hardware extensions
• Discuss the experience of the workshop's constructionist approach

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Supporting research

Making Games Resources assembled by the presenters at
[1] Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2019). Invent to learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, second edition (2 ed.): Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.
[2] Papert, S. (1993). The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. NY: Basic Books.
[3] Papert, S., & Solomon, C. (1972). Twenty Things to Do with a Computer. Educational Technology, 12(4), 9-18.
[4] Resnick, M., Bruckman, A., & Martin, F. (2000). Constructional Design: Creating New Construction Kits for Kids. In A. Druin,
Hendler, James (Ed.), Robots for Kids: Exploring New Technologies for Learning. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann.
[5] Stager, G. (2019). Program Your Own Gameboy. Retrieved from

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Session specifications

Maker activities and programs
Grade level:
Skill level:
Curriculum/district specialists, Teachers, Technology coordinators/facilitators
Attendee devices:
Devices useful
Attendee device specification:
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Participant accounts, software and other materials:
Subject area:
Computer science, STEM/STEAM
ISTE Standards:
For Educators:
  • Set professional learning goals to explore and apply pedagogical approaches made possible by technology and reflect on their effectiveness.
  • Design authentic learning activities that align with content area standards and use digital tools and resources to maximize active, deep learning.
For Students:
Knowledge Constructor
  • Students build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories and pursuing answers and solutions.