Celebrating the Winners of the National STEM Video Game Challenge

by Allison Mishkin
June 30, 2015

What do virtual reality innovators, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Mr. Roger’s studio have in common? All three were part of an amazing weekend honoring the winners of the 4th annual National STEM Video Game Challenge! Ten students and their families celebrated their achievements this past weekend in Pittsburgh, PA, home of this year’s regional spotlight. The events aimed to show the winners how to channel their passions into purpose and how to use that purpose on a meaningful pathway to a STEM-related career.

The weekend’s fun began with a question: what happens when the video game winners make physical games? As part of all STEM Challenge workshops, students are taught that video games are systems that are based on the same elements as board games, sports, and more, and asked to build a game out of a grab-bag of random household objects. Therefore, as an ice-breaker, winners were divided into four teams in order to make their own games: middle school winners, high school winners, and their respective parents.

Through this activity, the students grew close and all of the participants realized the connections between physical games and systems thinking principles. Creating games also gave the winners’ parents a greater sense of the difficulty involved with creating even the simplest game. One commented, “You know, I thought it was cool that my son won the competition, but I don’t think I realized how rewarding it can be to create something or that making a game is actually a lot like a science experiment!”

After creating their own games, the winners and their families went to visit Demo Day at the Schell Games studio. Demo Day allows all of the teams at Schell let their coworkers playtest what they’ve been working on. As explained by Christopher Arnold, General Counsel at Schell Games, the studio creates transformational games, or “experiences that help transform the players in a meaningful way.” This idea of transformational games helped one winner, Olivia Thomas, “think about how I can use my designs to make players feel or behave after the play them.” Olivia, eager to learn more about careers in gaming, leaped at the chance to ring the Schell gong which officially opens Demo Day.

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Let the games begin!

The students then met with professional designers to learn about career pathways, see their creations, and have fun. After the event, the students were buzzing with excitement about game design careers. When one designer said he either wanted to be a game designer or a doctor, Zack Harmon exclaimed, “After seeing that place, how could you want to work anywhere else?”

That evening, the students unwound at a Pittsburgh Pirates game. For many, it was their first baseball game and a chance to see how a different game system operates. One commented, “I still don’t really like sports, but I think they’re a good example of a really well thought out game design, and I guess that’s cool!” We think our winners brought good juju to help the Pirates, who wound up winning in the 10th inning!

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Winners and their parents holding up a Pirates shirt!

The next morning, winners went to the final celebration: a formal awards ceremony and family game day at WQED studios, the studio where Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Carmen Sandiego were filmed! Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and a professor at Carnegie Mellon, keynoted the event, remarking that the people who succeed are the ones who have a passion and are brave enough to chase it down! He offered the students a new mantra, and reminded them that school can only take them so far—they must individually figure out what inspires them and follow that drive to create experiences and tools that are meaningful. He also spoke to the parents, all of whom were eager to understand how to support their students’ extra-curricular activities. The secret: just encourage them to keep going!

Jesse’s slides gives the kids a new mantra

Jesse’s slides gives the kids a new mantra

After speeches by the ESA and the Grable Foundation and receiving certificates from the Smithsonian, the students’ games were featured at WQED’s family game day, an event in which Pittsburgh-area families learned about game design, how to play games together, and the STEM Challenge. The event showcased local resources and the winners got to playtest their game with over 250 people!

Congratulations to the winners of the National STEM Challenge Video Game Competition!

Congratulations to the winners of the National STEM Challenge Video Game Competition!

This audience was invaluable to them. One explained, “I kept trying to get friends to play my game, but they just want to be nice. Getting to see how my game impacts real kids helped me figure out what I want to do next and how to actually sell it!” Another local student, already creating his own games, relished the chance to meet kids who were farther along the game design pathway. He commented, “This event helped me see what I need to do next. I know what tools to check out, how to get my game out there, and how to find a community that will support me.”

Congratulations to the winners of the National STEM Challenge Video Game Competition!

Congratulations to the winners of the National STEM Challenge Video Game Competition!

The weekend’s festivities soon ended, and the students exchanged contact info with their new friends and went home armed with game design tips and a new sense of how to use their passion towards a career. One parent thanked host E-Line Media by saying “You know, I never wanted my son to be an engineer, but now I think there might be nothing better!”

Students playtesting at WQED Game Day

Students playtesting at WQED Game Day

By validating their pathways, we hope the event made a difference to those who attended and those who observed. Over the summer, we will offer more interviews with the winners and those who attended WQED’s game day. We hope to bring their lessons to you!