In Room 29 at Gridley Middle School, the persistent hum of keyboard clicks rings out every hour as students settle in to their computers. Occasional laughs and miniature conversations can be heard, but for the most part these students are locked in. Room 29 is home to Gridley's VR Lab.
"It's kind of like a place to expand your creativity on the computer," explains Edie, a seventh-grader who is in her second year of VR class. "You get to make whatever you want in whatever way you want and it doesn't matter because it's your creation."
Edie is referencing Blender, an open-source 3D content-creation program that Gridley students use. In Blender, a student can either build a 3D image from scratch or model one off of pictures online. Edie referenced her current work on a Niffler, a character from the Harry Potter series, which is a far cry from the gingerbread man she attempted in sixth grade.
"It's just really cool to think as a seventh-grader you can do these kinds of things," chimes in Amber, Edie's classmate. Amber is an avid video gamer who loves having access to game creation tools. "You can make something at the level of major video games."
Along with game design comes game commands, which the students achieve through coding.
The seventh-graders all took the class in sixth grade to build the foundation for where they are right now in coding and Blender. This year's crop of sixth-graders are sharpening their skills with programs like Code Combat and events like Code.org's Hour of Code, which offers different puzzles and games to students while teaching them coding.
"This amazing group of people came together and went, 'We don't have enough people going into [computer science], and so how do we introduce students to computer science in a way that's not intimidating,'" explains Gridley S.T.E.M. teacher Lisa Kist.
"Many students don't even know whether they'd like to be a programmer or not," adds John Mortiz, the VR teacher at Gridley. "It would be an injustice not to give the students the opportunity to know that that's a career field that they could go into."
Classes like VR and events like Hour of Code are already bridging that gap for sixth-grader Jack, who barely has a semester of coding under his belt. "I love this," he gushes. "I could make a career out of this if I wanted to, because it just seems really fun."
Jack's sentiment is shared by every student in both grades currently invested in coding, something that brings joy to both Lisa and John.
"It's truly a pathway to the future," affirms Lisa. "That's really what we want for all our students, is the best as they move toward their futures."