Excitement and Energy at a STEM Challenge Workshop

In an education setting, video games are often dismissed as mindless entertainment. This was the opposite in the National STEM Video Game Challenge Workshop hosted at the Science Museum of Virginia (SMV), where Barrie Adleberg and I helped students to critically think about the mechanics of a video game and apply them to their own passions.

STEM Challenge workshopStudents from all over Richmond filed into one of the Museum’s classrooms; they were clearly excited to find out what a video game design workshop was all about. As a mentor who works down in the SMV’s MiX Maker Lab, it always inspires me to see students come into these workshops in order to apply the knowledge they learned in school to something much more interactive like a video game. The workshop itself ran each of the kids through the very basics of video game design itself. Starting from the foundations of Rock Paper Scissors all the way to making their own computer game on Gamestar Mechanic, students brainstormed their way from paper to programming.

At first, each student appeared skeptical when they heard that video games like Assassin’s Creed or Minecraft have the same elements of a game like Rock Paper Scissors. It all seemed way too simple. However, after breaking it down and identifying the five basic game elements of space, rules, components, mechanics, and goals, students began to see how games that are even as complicated-looking as the Legend of Zelda all centered around one simple idea. Their faces gleamed and ideas were shouted around the room about modifying simple games, and the creativity ran wild in their own modifications to the Rock Paper Scissors game.

After the first activity, I led students down to the Science Museums official Maker Lab, the MiX, to show just how many resources they had access to in order to make their games. Students looked around in amazement and disbelief at all of the technology laid out. Audio recording equipment, 3D Printing, the Adobe Creative Suite, Makey Makey’s, and DSLR cameras were all available to use at their disposal. At the Mix, local students from the workshop have the possibility to make any game they want, using Flash to animate cutscenes or program a plat former, 3D printing figurines for a tabletop game, or even building their own custom game controller with an Arduino board.

I saw that the students were surprising themselves with the ideas they were able to come up with in a team, and they were thrilled to make something that was playable on the same level as their favorite video games. The point where students made their own game on paper with whatever supplies they were given was a major highlight. One group in particular fiddled with rubber bands and paperclips to create a slingshot to launch multicolored starbursts into a cup. A girl from the group walked up to me and demonstrated how the game worked.

“YOU ARE CAPTAIN STARBURST ABOUT TO TAKE OVER THE ENEMY CASTLE!” she said as dramatically as possible.

“The only way to make it to the fortress is to catapult yourself over the wall! The shot that makes it inside the wall wins the game,” she said with a smile.

Her excitement and pride at showing off her game was infectious. I got excited about her game just listening to her acting out the different mechanics and seeing all of her colorful game pieces. She loved showing off what she made, and it was encouraging to see such enthusiasm and thought put into constructing a game. I took a good look at her cone-shaped fortress, carefully constructed out of yellow construction paper, generous amounts of rubber bands, and an eraser topper crowning the top.

Right at the very end, students were provided with a final resource and challenge. The last resource was access to Gamestar Mechanic, a site that makes it easy  to create a video game through tinkering and experimentation. The students were then encouraged to enter the National STEM Video Game Challenge with the game they created with Gamestar Mechanic for a chance to have big name studio representatives, like the makers of Assassin’s Creed playtest their games. At the mention of a professional playtest, one kid’s mouth gaped open and he jumped out of his seat to register for the software. In my years mentoring at the lab I have never seen as much enthusiasm as I have with those students in the workshop.

My experience in the public school system, as well as teaching the STEM Video Game workshop helped me realize something. Students don’t realize how much they are actually capable of making with all of the knowledge they’ve gained from school. Often times they don’t get a chance to critically apply their skills and overcome a lot of real life challenges seen in the professional world. In school, each subject is presented in isolation, like an individual ingredient, without any sort of guide on how to apply and combine any of them together. Without hands-on application, it becomes difficult to understand how something complicated like video games or other STEM fields connect back to trigonometry proofs. Video games, however, bridge that gap by presenting puzzling elements and hurdles in both gameplay and development that cause the player/ developer to think critically back to their own knowledge from school to figure out how to solve these problems. It’s a fun and engaging hands-on solution needed to boost critical thinking skills that are lacking in a lot of public school systems today. Like the building blocks used in Minecraft, students came out of this workshop with a roadmap ready to use their own blocks of knowledge and build something incredible for others to enjoy.

Emily Kundrot is a MiX Maker Lab Mentor and a Freelance Animator for the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia. Her work specializes in outreach education and working to inspire all through the art of moving image. When she is not constantly sketching new ideas on napkins, you can catch her writing synth loops on her pocket synth or playing her favorite game, Earthbound, on her old Super Nintendo. You can view her work at www.emakunart.com.

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