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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

Educators Dive Into Deeper Learning at TRETC

Over 400 educators met to discuss the Deeper Learning movement at the recent Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference, “Diving In To Deeper Learning,” held in Mars, PA. Over two days they heard from top ed-tech innovators, including Tom Vander Ark, well known author and CEO of Getting Smart, an education advocacy firm, as well as noted area educators.

Vander Ark is also a partner in an educational venture capital firm that invests in EdTech startups, was president of the X Prize Foundation, and first executive director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Other featured speakers included Daniel Harrold, an English teacher and Instructional Technology Specialist currently teaching junior and senior English at Baldwin High School, located in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District; Jana Baxter, Instructional Media Services Coordinator for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead, PA, and Zee Ann Poerio, K-8 Computer teacher and advisor for the Student Technology Team at St. Louise de Marillac Catholic School in Pittsburgh.

Breakout sessions were led by area educators on everything from building 21st Century skills in a one to one teaching environment and “Teaching Science with Minecraft” to Blogging as Reflection/Portfolio. In one classroom teachers were learning to create “Squishy” circuits to teach basic electricity to pre-schoolers; in another, educators played well-known card games and created completely new ones.

TRETC is the premier K-16 educational technology conference in Western Pennsylvania. It is a joint conference run by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, local education leaders and the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

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Photos



Emmai Alaquiva, noted area educator, emceed the recent Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit, hosted by the Digital Badge Lab at The Sprout Fund. The program explored digital badges and included opportunities to explore out-of-school learning experiences.



Liz Whitewolf, a robotics educator and project manager at Propel Braddock Hills High School, explains the nuances of digital badges at the recent Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit.



math iQ is using innovative approaches to teach math to kids in grades preK-3, with a focus on kids in low-income areas. It is a project of iQ: smartmedia, the educational initiative of WQED Multimedia.



A recent edcampPGH featured discussions and hands-on sessions for local educators. Here’s the schedule from a recent edCamp, held at Propel Braddock Hills High School. (Norton Gusky photo.)



In a special program aimed at female students, the Elizabeth Forward Middle School girls are working with the Arts and Bots program from the Create Lab at CMU. All sixth and seventh graders learn robotics at EFMS’s Dream Factory.



Dr. Lisa Palmieri from The Ellis School shares ideas with other educators at an edTech PGH meet-up.



Springdale Senior High School 10th graders Matt Kern, left, and Cameron Pribulsky flank Sue Mellon, gifted support coordinator for the Allegheny Valley School District. Sue developed a unique program that combines robotics and poetry, and Matt and Cameron helped produce the prototype.



Seneca Valley High School students recently participated in an engineering/robotics challenge sponsored by Penn State Electro-Optics Center. SV had two air and sea teams and one land team; this is the sea team creation.



LaKiesha George, principal of Propel Hazelwood, stands next to the mobile sculpture created by The Mobile Sculpture Workshop and students from Propel Hazelwood. This beautiful piece of public art was created by teen apprentices who worked with the 12-week Mobile Sculpture Workshop program.



Educators learn to make Squishy Circuits at the recently held Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference. The circuits teach basic electricity to the youngest students.

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