Western IT and Web program

Western Technical College student Jeff Young, standing, lets WTC sustainability coordinator Casey Meehan try out Squares, a game Young created for a Game Development and IT Project Analysis course.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune

It’s not easy keeping an astronaut alive when facing hordes of rampaging space aliens.

On Tuesday, William McCullough and Perry Ravet were demonstrating their gaming project Cosmic Conundrum as part of Western Technical College’s IT-Web and Software Student Project Expo in the Integrated Technology Center on the La Crosse campus.

As McCullough weaved his character through the game’s grid and avoided getting hit by the aliens, Ravet spoke about how the pair designed and programmed each level of the game, in addition to developing the enemies’ artificial intelligence and the graphics. Almost 20 students in the program gave presentations on their games or service-learning projects where students helped develop new websites for local organizations or government agencies.

The idea for the summer projects came out of the program’s switch to Western’s trimester schedule a few years ago. To help students avoid sliding backward during summer months, the summer trimester of the five-trimester program incorporated the projects as a way for students to keep practicing their skills.

“We want to teach them to be programmers,” program director Ann Brice said, “but we’re letting them do it in a fun environment like making games.”

The IT-Web and Software Developer Program introduces students to business technology and computer programming with classes in programming and scripting languages such as Java, Structured Query Language and web development. Students gain skills for careers in fields such as application programming, business systems analysis and operations.

John Nitecki, senior IT manager of software development services at Kwik Trip, was one of the business professionals who attended the expo. He’s on the advisory council for the program and said he likes to see just how creative Western’s students can be.

When hiring recent graduates, he said, he looks for students with emotional intelligence and soft skills such as communication ability and teamwork — not to mention the technical skills that were on display in the different programs that tackled everything from programming 3D graphics to handling touch input.

“This is pretty amazing,” he said. “It is incredible how much these folks have been able to do in just 12 weeks.”

Like all of her peers, Richland Center student Courtney McClary and her partner Darrin Baker started on their gaming project in mid-May with three months to go from concept to final design. As one of the few students in the program, McClary said entering the program was a little intimidating, but she has loved learning about different programming languages and her fellow students have been very helpful.

She said she didn’t know what she wanted to do out of high school and that college in Richland Center wasn’t the right fit for her at the time. After moving to La Crosse and working in manufacturing for a few years, she learned about Western’s software program.

McClary said she really likes all the different things she can do with programming, from analyzing databases to making games. Her summer projects helped redesign the Monroe County Health Department’s website and created an interactive touchscreen game for her 2½-year-old autistic nephew, Rylen.

These projects were a lot of fun to do, she said, as she could see the impact they had. The game, for example, let Rylen learn about animals, work with his emotions and learn how to pronounce family members’ names as he interacts with the touchscreen.

“It has been really cool,” she said. “We all worked really hard on our projects over the summer.”

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Nathan Hansen has been the Education Reporter for the Tribune since 2014. Prior to that, he covered education, agriculture and business topics for the Winona Daily News. He is always on the lookout for news tips and can be contacted at 608-791-8234.

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