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This Month’s Learning Innovation: Gaming at Propel Braddock Hills

The ninth graders in Matt Fuchs’ English class at Propel Braddock Hills High School are furiously hunched over their computers. In the front of the class, an image is projected on a large screen. At closer view, it looks like they’re playing video games. Yes, that’s exactly what they are doing – and on class time. What’s going on here?

“They are using Minecraft (a video game) to study the abuse of power as well as a narrative writing unit,” Matt, their teacher, explains. “We set up this little community on Minecraft EDU, and we put a hierarchy in place. Some kids are politicians who were elected by the class, so it’s half a social experiment to see how they handle that power and that will become a reflective piece for them later on. That’s our Civics’ link up.

“For the English portion, the kids are journaling as their characters, and every day they owe me a daily journal based on what they did in the game. They are writing based on the game’s character’s perspective. It gives them a basis for their narrative work,” Matt continues. “They are these characters, and they write as these characters. But because it’s set in a fictional world they can expand – they can become creative.”

More and more educators are using games in their classes. Matt, for example, hooks up with the Civics teacher to look at issues like social justice – based on the Minecraft game. “The basic principle,” he says, “comes back to student engagement. That’s one of the core beliefs that I have as an educator. And I mean, let’s face it, kids love games. They’ll play them whether you want them to or not, so it’s a matter of harnessing that power and that draw and using that for my English purposes, as devious as they are.”

At Propel Braddock Hills High School School of Innovation and Design, games play a big part in the curriculum. There are courses in video game design. Students in the Shop class just produced a mini-golf course as a class project – with help and input from the Geometry and Engineering classes. Art and Shop students design arcade cabinets and decorate them. There are classic video games in the school loft where students can come and “chill out” between classes. And students participated in a national game conference held at Propel this past October.

Co-Principal Justin Aglio believes that all forms of gaming have great merit educationally. “Games are important because number one, it’s problem solving. But we also like games because they give students an opportunity to fail, keep retrying, and retrying over and over again. It’s an important life skill, to be able to fail at something and then go ahead and continue it and be successful at it.”

Justin is proud of the breadth of “gaming” offered at Propel. “This past fall, for example, we held a national game conference here, with over 100 educators from eight states attending, talking about how educators can use games to help students in the classroom. We also had something called JamTek, where students were able to participate in a one day session to learn how to make a video game in one day. Then they got the chance to showcase that game at the end of the day.”

Teachers use the Pennsylvania Common Core standards in all of these classes, and they teach according to the state requirements. But they are getting very creative in how to bring skills – like writing, math, art, and engineering – to students in a non-traditional way.

“Our teachers plan with our game design teacher to create a lesson that’s meaningful for the students. Everything we do, we focus on our students,” Justin says. “Gaming is going to help our students in the future because it helps them learn to use strategy. They learn critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, and they have the option to just have fun with it and continue to grow.”

“Our students get their hands on something and get to play with it; they’re learning concepts but having fun with it. And most importantly, they’re learning critical skills for the 21st Century,” Justin adds.

They also develop pride in their work. Student Josh proudly shows off the video arcade game in the school’s entrance hallway that he helped design. “We started out with just a big sheet of plywood,” Josh explains. “I cut it down, made all the shapes and then I pretty much pieced it together piece by piece and customized it from that. I wired it up all by myself,” he says. “I see a lot of kids using my game, and I’m surprised they like it so much,” he adds with a big smile on his face.

Back in Matt Fuchs’ English class, the students are still fully engaged, working away on their computers. “From watching the students work in their ‘communities,’ I see them developing skills like cooperation, digital citizenship, time planning skills – all these things they’re going to need throughout their lives. But they get to learn it playing it out in this little digital world.”

propelschools.org

Local Educator Helping Us Compete For Federal Dollars

Early Childhood programs in Pennsylvania – and Pittsburgh -- may be getting a big boost if Michelle Figlar has a say. Michelle, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association on the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), is sitting on a 20-member blue-ribbon panel tasked by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto with submitting a proposal for a Preschool Development Grant from the Federal Government.

In August, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Pittsburgh; while here Duncan announced that $250 million in federal dollars would be up for grabs among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Pennsylvania can qualify for up to $20 million, but has to get an application in by mid-October. Michelle is helping to write the grant that may ultimately bring a chunk of that $20 million here.

This Pre-School Expansion Grant will be used to create a strategy to serve more four-year-olds in Pennsylvania, explains Michelle. “It’s a great idea, and then Pennsylvania can choose two or more communities” to receive the grant money. Pittsburgh could be one of those beneficiaries, using some of that $20 million “to best meet the needs of children.” If we get some monies, it will be used to increase professional development for teachers, help families gain access to programs that are targeted to four-year-olds, help provide transportation to institutions and achieve high quality programs.

The grants are aimed at helping low to moderate income families, those 200% under the poverty line and giving those families and children access to quality pre-school programs. But it would also free up monies to be used to improve existing early childhood programs – and create new ones.

“It would help four-year-olds in the city of Pittsburgh – that’s a big piece of the puzzle,” Michelle says, who will be heading up the Policy Committee on the Mayor’s panel. “And it will help us with the overall strategic plan for children.”

Arne Duncan’s recent visit made an impression on local teachers and educators. It showed that “our city and new mayor are really committed to young children and families who live in the city,” Michelle says.

Media Partnership Focuses on Learning Innovation

WQED Multimedia and our media partners, 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh have been focusing on Learning Innovation for the past months, and have put the media spotlight on everything from innovations in Early Childhood learning to computer science, STEAM and robotics.

The four media outlets, TV, radio, magazine and online magazine, are working together to focus on Pittsburgh leadership in the international movement to “remake learning” and create educational opportunities designed for our times.

Made possible through a grant from the Grable Foundation, Learning Innovation focuses on the Pittsburgh region's need to prepare its young people for college and the work force by building on the basics and connecting students with hands-on learning experiences that develop relevant skills.

Look for new stories, videos and content every month, on WQED-TV, iQ Kids Radio, and on WQED Interactive, and visit our partners at WESA, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh.

Photos



Celebrating the end of another Summer of Learning were visitors to The Sprout Fund’s Pittsburgh Maker Party, held at the Society of Contemporary Craft. (Photo by Ben Filio, courtesy, The Sprout Fund.)



Educators at the South Fayette Summer Learning Institute joined South Fayette Township School District teachers to learn about computational thinking, game design and more. (Photo by Norton Gusky.)



In July, 32 recent high school graduates created “Green Compass” radio features while serving as Heinz Endowments summer interns. The features focused on community issues. SLB Radio provided training and coaching. (Photo courtesy SLB Radio.)



Learning new digital skills with help from mentors from the Remake Learning Digital Corps was this teen.



Getting creative at the recent Second Annual Maker Party, thrown by The Sprout Fund. (Photo by Ben Filio, courtesy, Sprout Fund.)



Heinz Endowments summer interns created radio features on issues ranging from life in public housing to the plight of the honey bee. Training for the “Green Compass” program was provided by SLB Radio. (Photo courtesy, SLB Radio.)



High school students in Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media Program summer camps experienced an “immersion” into filmmaking.



Exploring the heavens were these kids at the Outerspace Maker Party at Assemble.



Propel Schools are the first schools in the Pittsburgh area to use Playworks, an organization dedicated to revamping the concept of recess in schools. Here some teachers learn to “play.”

Spread The News

Do you have a story of learning innovation? A program, teacher or parent who is making a difference? Tell us about it and we’ll share it on our Learning Innovation webpage. Submit stories and videos to learning@wqed.org!

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