Like his fellow Pleasant Middle School sixth graders, Lane Johnson loves video games.
However, unlike many other middle schoolers, this passion for video games inspired him to learn to code.
Johnson's initiative, combined with creativity and hours dedicated to learning the programming language Scratch led him to entering the 2021 Congressional App Challenge, an annual competition encouraging middle and high school-aged students to learn to code through the creation of their own Apps, showcasing the value of computer science and STEM education.
A few months later, his hard work paid off.
Congressman Troy Balderson (OH-12) announced Dec. 21 the Pleasant Middle School sixth-grade student as the winner of the 2021 Congressional App Challenge for his district.
Students from across Ohio's 12th Congressional District entered the competition. A panel of local experts evaluated whether knowledge of coding and programming skills was shown along with the quality and implementation of the students' ideas.
What made Johnson's App stand out?
According to Balderson, the team of judges picked Johnson due to the way he made the game user friendly and his creativity. Talented with not only tech skills, the sixth grader took the time to hand-draw the artwork throughout the game by himself.
As one of the youngest participants in the competition, this creativity and hard work made Johnson stand out among the group of middle and high school students, all of whom are setting themselves up to be successful in the growing field of tech careers, Balderson explained.
“For us, it’s about the opportunities that are out there. I mean young kids have so much potential right now in this field, and we’ve been doing this App challenge now for the last three years," Balderson said. "Every employer we go to when we’re out and about at district is, ‘Do you know anyone who can do this? Do you know anyone we can hire?’ So the struggle with these employers is the outreach of these kids being trained, and I think this is a great way."
"Lane is a perfect example: he’s a step ahead of everybody already. He’s a sixth grader. He outdid high school kids, so I think there’s something to be said for that,” the congressman continued.
The winning App, which Johnson named "Cats vs. Dogs: The RPG," is an interactive game that players can access through an internet browser, choosing characters’ abilities while traveling through different settings to try to beat enemies.
An RPG, or Role Playing Game, is a popular style of game where a player steps into the shoes of a character. This style of game is Johnson's favorite, and he loves to play on his Nintendo Switch.
In Johnson's game, gamers play as cats and dogs, characters that he designed and drew himself.
“It just seemed like an interesting subject, like interesting characters to fight each other,” he said.
The Johnson family first discovered the competition online, and Lane's father, Matthew Johnson, began researching the opportunity to see if it would be something his son might be interested in, as Lane was already beginning to explore the world of code through trying several smaller projects and reading books in his spare time.
“I’ve tried out new coding stuff and I’ve really enjoyed doing that, so I took it further and then I entered the competition," Lane said.
Matthew said opportunities like the App challenge are great because they make learning STEM skills fun and engaging for kids like his son, whose favorite subject in school is not surprisingly math.
“I think it’s good for them - it’s something that gets them into it easily. They can quickly do something where they can see results, and so then it’s not something that they’re going to get frustrated with by not seeing results, so being able to do something and learn about it quickly helps pique their interest a little bit,” Matthew Johnson said.
Lane said his teachers have been congratulating and supporting him, celebrating his accomplishment.
“They say congratulations a lot,” he said.
Pleasant Middle School teacher and Tech Squad advisor, Joe Robinson, has Johnson as both a student in his Career Connections class and as a member of the Tech Squad.
"He’s high level as far as his ability to code, and just his interest as a sixth grader, that’s pretty remarkable,” Robinson said.
“I know what he did with the scratch programming and such, that’s not easy, and to be that kind of creative is really refreshing for any sixth grader.”
Though coding is for now just a hobby for Lane, he plans on continuing to enter competitions like the Congressional App Challenge in the future. He even already has ideas.
He is interested in doing sequel to this winning game and might learn a new computer programming language to create the next installment.
"Cats vs. Dogs: The RPG" is to be featured on the House of Representatives’ website, showcasing his winning App, to which Johnson said:
“I feel like its really cool that they can know about my game and be able to enjoy,” he said.