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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

28 Area School Districts to Receive STEAM Grants

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit's (AIU) Center for Creativity is distributing $530,000 in grants to 28 school districts in Allegheny, Beaver, Greene, Lawrence, Mercer, Washington and Westmoreland counties. Provided by Chevron Corporation, the Claude Worthington Benedum and the Grable Foundations, each grant is worth up to $20,000 and will be used to design and create a variety of programs that will engage students in STEAM learning -- Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics.

A variety of unique learning environments and programs will be created throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. Some of these include a Virtual Immersion Lab, a Tech Robotics Lab, a Motivation Station, an Invention Studio and an Outdoor Discovery Zone. These new programs will add to the region’s focused development to remake learning for students of all ages.

This is the seventh consecutive year that the Benedum and Grable Foundations have provided support for STEAM projects in the Pittsburgh region. The STEAM grant distribution has been undertaken by the AIU's Center for Creativity, which was developed with the support of the foundations. This is the first year that Chevron Corporation contributed to the collective grant.

Gregg Behr, executive director of the Grable Foundation, said that it is encouraging that the Pittsburgh region supports and understands the importance of STEAM-based initiatives.

“There is no shortage of innovative teaching and learning happening in our local public schools, where students are eagerly acquiring the knowledge and skills they'll need to navigate futures none of us can yet imagine. That's why the Pittsburgh region stands at the forefront of remaking learning nationally,” he said.

The purpose of the AIU Center for Creativity is to connect educators with the innovators, scientists, technologists, thinkers and makers prevalent in our region. Through the efforts of the foundations and the Center for Creativity, school districts throughout southwestern Pennsylvania have received more than $2.63 million in STEAM grants since 2009.

More than 90 grant applications were submitted. Proposals were rated by several categories including sustainability, implementation, relevance and STEAM integration.

Photos



The Garfield Little Free Library was built by local youth through a partnership with local carpenter Ben Johnson and Assemble Crafternoons, GCAT, and PULSE.



The Avonworth Elementary School C.A.R.E. space just opened. Students in grades 3-5 will Connect, Apply, Repurpose and Engage with STEAM projects.



Students from the Environmental Charter School recently visited the Andy Warhol Museum to come up with toys/objects for pre-school kids to use at the Museum. The ECS team of 6th and 7th graders worked in collaborative teams and developed prototypes. (Photo by Norton Gusky)



Educators learn how to use the Hummingbird Robotics kit at a recent certified training workshop at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s transformED. (Photo by Norton Gusky)



Working with the 3-D printer at Assemble. For information on summer camps, http://assemblepgh.org/programs/summer-camps-2015



edCamp was held recently at Baldwin High School. Educators work out their schedule for the day. (Photo by Norton Gusky)



Holding up the earrings she made using a 3-D printer is this young student who learned her skills at Assemble in Garfield.



Children record audio Father’s Day cards at Saturday Light Brigade’s broadcast studios. Photo courtesy SLB Radio Productions.



Now in its 10th year, SLB Radio helps children make audio Father’s Day cards for their loved ones. Photo courtesy SLB Radio Productions.

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