Game Design – New Opportunities for Learners

Game based learning is growing. It’s not just getting games into the curriculum. It’s rethinking how to use the elements of game design to engage students and allow them to become creative producers and problem-solvers. In the Pittsburgh region there a number of schools that have bought into the game-based learning theories and are seeing greater engagement of their students. This article will look at three examples:  a K-12 private school for girls – the Ellis School; a K-12 public school district – Avonworth; and a K-8 charter school – Environmental Charter School. Each site is using a systems approach with a strong emphasis on Human-Centered Design. In each case students not only solve real-world problems, but they also discover the real world opportunities for future careers.

Avonworth School District

Ken Lockette, the principal of Avonworth High School, has been one of the leaders in the Pittsburgh region using design based principles to engage students. The project began with an opportunity to work with the LUMA Institute, an educational spin-off from Pittsburgh-based MAYA Design. According to Ken, “We have used human-centered design (HCD) in different ways with different groups of people, adults and students alike.  We started with the adults.  Two years ago, two of my teachers were trained along with me at the Luma Institute through the Pittsburgh Foundation’s “Change Agents” initiative. Those two teachers have since run two trainings for my faculty, including being part of Avonworth High School’s Summer Institute and utilizing an Act 80 Day early fall.  WIthout teacher buy-in, it would never get to the students.  Additionally, I implemented the HCD strategies through working with a student advisory group and with Pittsburgh Galleries Project group I led in curating an exhibit with the Toonseum for the 75th Anniversary of Batman.  We also used HCD strategies with a teacher and student group, who worked with me in exploring new classroom designs and designs for our new Collaboration Center.  We did several “alternative worlds” visits to places like the Entertainment Technology Center, CREATE Lab, and Maya.”


Credit Photos by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

I asked Ken why he selected the design approach. Ken related, “Frankly, I was tired of “playing school.”  I was blown away by participating with the HCD process several years ago when the Kids+Creativity Network when I went through a strategic planning session at Maya’s older space on the Southside.  After going through the full intensive training two summers ago, I was sold on design thinking and knew that it was what was needed in our schools to get students to exercise creativity.

It’s cheap. It’s pretty cost-effective. “

The key to Avonworth’s success was getting early adopters on board and then letting them start their chant on how the process was engaging students. Ken sees the movement to design based learning as a transformation of existing learning. Where does Avonworth plan to go next?  Ken plans to continue to infuse the strategies into all subject areas at the high school. The Human Based Learning approach will support Avonworth’s continued move toward Project-based Learning. According to Ken, “Big thing – Blow up the curriculum. Nowhere does it say we have to have traditional courses. We can do a lot more with how our curriculum is organized.”

In the next phase, the project will look at jobs and career opportunities through the Avonworth Career Academies.  The program is in year one with its first cohort, which begins during the sophomore year. During their 9th grade year, Avonworth students take an interest survey and career assessment and are exposed to career-based activities. They can then join one of five career academies their 10th grade year. The process of the academies is below:

  • Year 1, research and career exploration
  • Year 2, internship or apprenticeship
  • Year 3, real-world experience, job search and interview training.

The Ellis School


Credit Photos by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Lisa Abel-Palmieri, the Director of Technology and Innovation at the Ellis School, like Ken Lockette, has become a strong convert to Human Centered Design. In the case of Ellis there’s been a strong push for game design starting at the elementary level. According to Lisa, students begin their exploration of game design in third grade. The skill building process enters again in fourth grade as part of a unit and then become part of a year-long activity in fifth grade. According to Lisa, “The girls finish their skill building before they begin a major project for sixth grade. They are paired to design a game. The two kids interview classmates learning interview skills and a play-testing process. They go home for the summer and then finish the game in the first trimester of sixth grade with a presentation to the school community.”

The learning process continues through the middle school as the students have a choice to use the Hummingbird, a robotics kit developed by Tom Lauwers at the CREATE Lab of Carnegie Mellon University, to connect to a game.

At Ellis the students see the connection of game design to the real world. The students work with Schell Games, a game company located in Pittsburgh. Jesse Schell, the founder and CEO of Schell Games, provides the students with the real world connection to the game industry. The students have visited Schell Games and observed people working on game design. In addition, the student have acted as play testers for Schell Games.

I asked Lisa how the game design process impacted student learning. According to Lisa,

“In the past students jumped to what they thought the problem was, but now they understand that contextualization and empathy-building process was important. By using HCD the students pause and know who are key stakeholders for the problem and how to learn from them.”

The key from Lisa’s point of view, “To quickly design and code allows them to quickly get feedback. Different iterations allow for more sophisticated solutions. Empathy building is now built-into the process.”

The Environmental Charter School

Justin Aglio, the new principal at the Upper School for the The Environmental Charter School (ECS), also went through the LUMA training program.  At the LUMA training program, Justin learned alongside other educators in the Pittsburgh region, including coaches and teachers at ECS, how the Human-Centered Design learning process fostered collaboration and acted as a catalyst tool for change. For Justin, the teachers, and students at ECS the HMS principles permeate throughout the curriculum and into professional development. There is always a focus on the needs for the customer, whether that’s a student, parent, or teacher issue.

Credit Photos by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Credit Photos by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

At ECS the design process helps to make learning more authentic. For example in fifth grade students are working with Carnegie Mellon University to design a space shuttle to travel to Mars. In fourth grades students have an energy and transportation design challenge. In seventh grade students are looking at communities in Pittsburgh with the intent on designing their own solutions for an area known as the Strip District. Sixth graders were challenged in the fall of 2014 to find an area of the building that needed to be redesigned. They selected the gymnasium. Now the students are meeting with architects to share their designs.

Inherent in all of these projects is a systemic approach to problem-solving. Students are developing products to solve a real-world problem by engaging in a process that focuses on the human needs for a space, environment, or community.

The design process has changed the way teachers teach and how students learn at ECS. Justin used the Thinking Lab, a multimedia space created at ECS, as an example of how this has changed the culture of the school. The space promotes collaboration and innovation. Justin explained, “Students and teachers take on new roles. Evaluation is no longer just about a standardized test. Now learners look at self-assessment, peer reviews, and input from professionals in different disciplines.”

When I asked Justin how games fit into the learning process, he used a story about a bus driver. The bus driver had a hard time understanding why kids played video games. For the bus driver it was better to build or make something. Justin explained, “In today’s world games are about making things. Now students are learning to program a robot or a 3D printer to make furniture. The students need to understand the design process in order to be prepared for their future.”

Justin also shared an anecdote about a parent who questioned where games fit into the curriculum. Justin explained that he looks at the skills a student learns and uses by playing a game. The skills are the key. According to Justin, “As a school you have to be open to career possibilities we don’t even know about. We need to to explore options to give students an edge for their future.”



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