National STEM Video Game Challenge Inspires a Winner’s College Studies

Olivia Thomas was one of the winners of the National STEM Video Game Challenge (2015-16). Now studying computer science and games, interactive media, and mobile development at Boise State University, Olivia recently shared her experience with the STEM Challenge in the “Youth-to-Industry Pipeline: How Challenges and Game Jams Create Career Pathways” panel at the 2017 Games for Change Festival in New York City. 

Olivia presenting at the Games for Change Festival

Olivia shares her experience as a National STEM Video Game Challenge winner with Games for Change Festival attendees. (Photo credit: Games for Change)

When I was younger, I either wanted to be a video game designer or an entomologist. Then I grew into a healthy fear of insects, and the rest is history.

Actually, there was a bit more to it than that. My path since I settled on the idea of designing games has really been an incredible one and there have been so many people and organizations that have helped me along the way. I’m here today to talk about my journey as a developer, and the contest that started it all.

As a 9-year-old who wanted to design video games, I had no idea where to start. I checked out some books from the library about programming, but after I had read 50 pages and only learned how to write a “hello world” program, I lost interest. Then, one day when I was in middle school, my mom emailed me a link to something called the National STEM Video Game Challenge. Being a very competitive child, something in me was immediately sparked. Through the STEM Challenge, I also discovered a game design tool called Gamestar Mechanic that captured—and sustained—my interest.

Suddenly, I had a tool, and I had a goal: Win the STEM Challenge.


Olivia presenting her original design, Colorless, at the White House Science Fair in 2016.

My first games were wobbly attempts at design, but each one was a little better than the last. I entered one of those early games in the STEM Challenge and, though it didn’t win, it kindled something in me that wasn’t going away. The goal of winning drove me to improve my designs, but regardless of whether I would ever win, the STEM Challenge motivated me like nothing else to keep designing more (and better) games. In total I designed over 60 games using the Gamestar Mechanic platform.

Eventually, I won the Scholastic “What’s Your Story?” Contest with one of my designs. As a prize, I participated in Gamestar Mechanic’s game design class, where I learned important lessons about scaffolding and playtesting. I still had the STEM Challenge in my sights and entered it every year. Finally, in my junior year of high school, I actually won. Winning the STEM Challenge gave me so many priceless experiences and resources. A highlight for me was touring Schell Games in Pittsburgh. Then, also through the STEM Challenge, I received the incredible opportunity to show my winning game at the 2016 White House Science Fair.

As I came to know the joy of seeing my creations blossom under my fingers, I found that I had a desire to share this sensation with others. Thanks to one of the contests that I won, I received a grant to put on a six-week game design workshop for middle school girls. During the workshop, I was even able to include activities that I learned at the STEM Challenge award ceremony.

All of these experiences shaped and solidified my decision to go into game design in college. The STEM Challenge and other contests not only gave me confidence that I could actually do this as a career, but they connected me to resources that made that future possible. My high school game design wins also helped me obtain scholarships that made college possible.

The only thing about my decision to pursue computer science and game development that really made me nervous was hardcore coding. I had this idea in my head that while the game designing I had done was fun, but it wasn’t the “real” thing. Perhaps the greatest surprise I encountered when I started college was learning that developing games for real wasn’t all that different from what I’d been doing for half of my life. I still love it just as much.

Through each of these experiences, I’ve learned more about the design process, how to work on a deadline, and embraced the process of learning new skills. And while I hardly realized it along the way, I’ve been training to become a developer from the start. It all began with the National STEM Video Game Challenge.


oliviathomasOlivia Thomas has been designing video games since the age of nine. Now she is double majoring in computer science and GIMM (Games, Interactive Media, and Mobile Development) at Boise State University. She has won several awards for her games, including the National STEM Challenge, the NCWIT Aspirations Award, and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Most recently she was invited to the White House Science Fair. She is a strong believer in the transformative power of games and hopes to pursue a career making educational games.

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