Astro Space Coding Club continues its work with a new focus

Astro Space Coding Club turns its attention to animation

There were all kinds of adjustments students had to make when distance learning was put in place, from doing all their schoolwork online to not being able to see their friends. Sports were cancelled, and after-school activities too.

There was one committed group of students, however, that decided they wanted to continue one program as if school was in session. Members of the newly formed Astro Space Coding Club at Port Chester Middle School have continued to meet with club advisor Jaime Rufo. The focus of the club has changed, although coding continues to be a part of it.

Initially the club was formed in the fall to enable students to learn to code as they researched and developed presentations on a variety of celestial topics inspired by Ms. Rufo’s astronomy classes. Students were in the process of writing their own scripts and creating soundtracks. In the spring club members were going to share the planetarium presentations they created with the public.

When Ms. Rufo checked in with club members while they were working from home several said they missed the club and the work they had started. It occurred to Ms. Rufo if the students could do their classwork online, they could also continue their club work. When she asked them if they wanted the club to meet, they all agreed. Club members include Menelik Reason, Ava Osorio, Bryan Sachs, Ashley Gutierrez-Gastelu, Luis Acosta, Amanda DeFeo, Xavier Santos Olson, Ben Santos Olson, Nicholas Bedoya and Gage Saresky.

“The resounding yes to continue the club was so emphatic that I set about brainstorming something that would be fun and useful for us all to learn and do at home,” Ms. Rufo said.

The focus of the club has changed a bit since its inception. The coding they are working on now focuses on animation using free software called Blender, a 3-D graphics program used to animate movies and create visual effects and simulations. The program offers a variety of tutorials and can be accessed by anyone with a computer.

Ms. Rufo had been introduced to the software at a conference she attended several years ago.

“One of the seminars was about using Blender,” Ms. Rufo said. “I was so overwhelmed by Blender there was no way I was learning this right now. Then this happened, and I kind of thought if ever there was a time to learn Blender its now. I work best when I am learning with other people. No one motivates me more than my students.”

They began to learn together as they figured out what Blender is, what it is capable of and even come to enjoy many of the exercises they have done using the software.

“It’s different because instead of doing something together as a group, it’s more challenging because all the assignments are all on our own,” student Gage Saresky said. “We don’t have the ability to ask our teacher to help.”

If questions do arise, students meet virtually twice a week so they can ask questions of Ms. Rufo or their classmates. They can also share the work they have done. They are given two tutorials each week to work on. During the meetings, Ms. Rufo said, students not only discuss their work but also use the time to chat with their friends and commiserate.

“We can present in the meeting and see our friends, and they can help us,” Xavier Santos Olson said. He and his twin brother, Ben, are both in the club.

As students learn the program, they have worked on creating animated snowmen, balls that bounce and an animated video of a ball knocking down large cubes.

“If we learn how to do this more, we can make videos and stories,” Xavier said. “That is really cool to think about.”

 “There is an incredible amount of self-motivation, which is the really impressive part,” Ms. Rufo said of her students.

Ben Santos Olson said some of the work he has done includes learning how to put different objects in the background of his animated video. He said his teacher gives them the assignments but lets them work on them on their own. When they do meet, he said, Ms. Rufo offers advice and shares what she has learned too.

“I am learning right along with them,” Ms. Rufo said.

Luis Acosta said he was looking for something fun to do outside of his classroom work.

“You could do activities, it’s something to keep us entertained,” he said.

Nick Bedoya said he hopes to continue learning more about animation after being introduced to it through Blender.

The student work with Blender is truly something they are doing on their own. There are no grades or deadlines and students can work at their own pace and join the online discussions when they can.

“This is something we are all doing purely for the joy of learning something new with our friends,” Ms. Rufo said.

There is an interest among students to finish the projects they were initially working on when the Astro Coding Club began in the fall. Ms. Rufo does not know yet if that will be possible, but she does have a goal in mind for their current work.

“What I want to do is some way animate the night sky coming from Aries and use it like an introduction credits in videos,” she said of the astrological sign that is a Ram, the school mascot.  “That is what I want to be able to do by September.”