Gaming Culture for Computer Science and Engineering Education
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Episode Show Notes
How can we harness the power of games for education? In Part 1 of the episode, the podcast explores how the PAX South 2017 gaming conference inspired ideas in better engineering education. In Part 2, we hear from two team members of TEALS, a group supported by Microsoft Philanthropies that was also at PAX. TEALS has been around since 2009, matching volunteer CS professionals with K-12 teachers in schools and developing CS curricula. John Jannone and Brett Wortzman from TEALS explained how they already use games to teach computer science to K-12 students. They discuss how to use game design, content creation, and play to achieve student learning objectives.
Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.
Check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.
Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
Gaming Culture for Computer Science and Engineering Education
[Pius Wong] The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is made possible by donations from generous individual listeners, including Javier Villareal. He donated at the Engineer level, which is awesome, so thank you to all the donors including Javier. You all can keep the show going, too, by donating to my independent studio at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.
[opening music fades in]
[Pius] It’s April 10th, 2017. I’m your host Pius Wong for The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.
[Pius] Remember Oregon Trail? Number Munchers? Carmen San Diego? Well, those are some classic games in schools from twenty to thirty years ago, but games in the classroom have evolved way beyond that. In this episode, I look at how gaming culture can integrate into engineering education today, by visiting a major video game conference. Part 1 points out some of the cool products and ideas from the conference related to education. In Part 2, we hear from TEALS, a team supported by Microsoft Philanthropies and volunteers from over 200 companies. TEALS was at the conference, too, talking about how they use games to teach computer science in K12.
[Pius, narration] Back in January, I went to San Antonio to visit PAX South. That’s P-A-X, and it’s a major convention for video games, board games, and everything related to gaming culture.
[Pius, in security line] Hello.
[Woman, in security convention hall] Hello. Can I look in the bottom part?
[Pius] Oh yeah.
[Pius, narration] Each morning, past the security check-in, throngs of people streamed through the convention center in all directions, some dressed as their favorite video game characters, some playing the scavenger hunt with friends, and all obviously excited. How can you take this kind of excitement and channel it to education?
[Pius, in convention hall] There’s apparently a MarioKart64 competition or something, or just a MarioKart competition, and people really want to get on stage to play.
[Pius, narration] In the crowded exhibit hall, there were plenty of flashy new games and merchandise. I few games might even be good for promoting learning.
[Ian Reed, in convention hall] Alright, basically it’s as if you were to take Othello, Connect Four, and Tetris, and just smash it all into the same game.
[Pius, narration] Ian Reed is the designer of Convert, and he showed me how to play.
[Ian] So what you’re doing in this game, you are taking wooden blocks of varying shapes, and you’re stacking them on a checkerboard, a 4-by-4 checkerboard, trying to create rows of four squares.
[Pius, narration] It’s a two-player tabletop game that exercises your logical thinking in 3D, and I could see anyone who wants to practice their spatiovisualization skills playing it.
[music from convention hall fades in]
[Pius, in convention hall] A game apparently presented by C63 Industries, it’s called Pixel RU Squared. They say it’s a competitive educational puzzle platform shooter. It sounds really epic.
[Pius, narration] The game developer for Pixel RU Squared had made this trippy-looking, fast-paced logic game that was like a tribute to old-school 8-bit gaming history.
[Man, in convention hall] We also have a storyline that focuses on the history of computer science, history of science, things like that. If you actually play it, you’ll see, like, when you go up to read images, there will actually be an image of a famous person, and all the pixels will line up to form this picture. You’ll get a little history about this person.
[Pius, narration] There were a lot more sources of educational inspiration than this. There was a room called the Jamspace that had musical instruments for anyone to play.
[music from Jamspace fades in]
[Pius, narration] Clearly games could motivate music appreciation and vice-versa.
[Pius] There was Happy Chess, a cutesy, cartoon digital version of chess that could encourage little kids to play that game of logic and strategy. There was a virtual reality headset hooked up to an elliptical machine, the kind at your gym. When I put on the headset and stepped on to the elliptical, it felt like you really were racing down this digital world while on the elliptical. Any physical education teachers wanna motivate teens to do cardio? Well, this system is one possibility. Maybe your students in your engineering classes could program a similar system.
[Pius] Besides showcasing products, PAX South also showcased ideas in special sessions. One session relevant to engineering educators was a panel of three artists, engineers, and makers, Katrina Keller, Kristina Heishman, and Haley Moore. They talked about how to manage creativity. It was interesting because oftentimes engineering teachers hear advice on what to do if you are not getting any ideas for projects, but an audience member asked the panelists about the opposite problem.
[Woman, in session] My biggest problem is not getting inspiration; it’s having too much inspiration. It’s hard for me to stay focused on one project. So I have to ask: How do you guys focus on one project and keep with it.
[Panelist 1] That’s a very good question.
[Panelist 2] Everyone I know is like Krissy.
[Panelist 3] I have a lot of spreadsheets, like if I’m doing a couple projects, I’ll have spreadsheets with timelines on them, if I have deadlines or something. I also recently started doing a bullet journal. It’s basically a planner, but a way to organize your thoughts, and you can use it as a journal, as a planner, as a sketchbook.
[Woman] Thank you.
[Panelist 2] I would say: make lists.
[Panelist 3] The bullet journal is a way to organize all my lists in the same spot.
[Panel 2] My problem is, when I could just write it on a list, I start something. So I have a bunch of started things that should be on lists. So don’t feel bad just putting things on a list. It literally is a habit I had to break, very, very hard, one of the hardest habits ever, actually. I’m so ADHD, I’ll be, like, oh, a thing! I gotta do that thing right now! I’ll spend all night on a thing and then never go back, or not consider that I don’t have time to finish, I don’t have the resources and stuff. So yeah, fighting the need to “I gotta make a thing” and then writing it down feels so wrong at first, but ultimately I’ve been more focused and productive and actually completing my things.
[Pius, narration] So in the end these panelists offered up some practical tips you could give to the kid with too many project ideas. The so-called “bullet journal” method for organizing projects might be overkill, and I encourage you to look that up on YouTube to judge for yourself, but the bullet journal method might also work for some kids.
[Pius] PAX elicited many morsels of ideas like this, for how to teach engineering in different ways. However, one group took the idea of mixing video games and education to the next level. That’s coming up in Part 2, next.
[musical interlude fades in]
[Pius] This last music clip was from a live performance in the PAX Jamspace by the band Descendants of Erdrick.
[musical interlude fades out]
[Pius] TEALS is a team at Microsoft who’s acronym stands for Technology, Education, And Literacy in Schools, and TEALS is trying to spread computer science education throughout the USA. They’re doing it by pairing working computer science professionals with teachers already in the classroom. Together they co-teach classes like Intro to Computer Science or AP Computer Science A. The TEALS team has some passionate gamers and game-lovers, and so they’ve already thought about how to use games to teach CS. The following is an abbreviated version of their presentation on the subject at PAX. Speaking are John Jannone and Brett Wortzman from TEALS.
[John Jannone, on stage] My name is John Jannone. I am the regional manager for a program called TEALS. Essentially my job is to go around the country and to help high schools build their computer science programs.
[Brett Wortzman, on stage] My name is Brett Wortzman. I also work for TEALS. I am the Instruction and Training Manager, which means my job is to help all of our teachers and our volunteers be as awesome as they can possibly be and, therefore, make our students be as awesome as they can possibly be. A little bit about each of us: I am a former high school computer science teacher. I’ve taught CS at the college level, as well. Before that, I was a software engineer for Microsoft, and in my spare time I’m an avid tabletop gamer, I solve puzzles, I write puzzles, and I try to find really cool new ways to engage in the classroom and engage education, going beyond what we might be used to.
[John] Cool, and I made myself one promise when I was in high school. I, no matter what, would not go into education.
[John] That was until I fell in love with it. I was a neuroscience major at the University of Scranton, and I got started in tech education by working at a STEM summer camp, where I was hired to be a game design teacher. I ended teaching robotics, programming in C++ and Java and a myriad of other courses. I fell in love with my students, and I fell in love with tech. I’m an avid gamer, a lover of game culture, and I believe in the cognitive and social benefits of games and what they can provide.
[John] I mentioned that we both work for TEALS. We are a Microsoft Philanthropies program. We help build sustainable high school computer science programs, and we will grow existing ones. We do it in a really unique way. Because of how hard It is for teachers how to code, and because of how much money people in tech can make not doing education, we decided to pair them up. So in our program, we find volunteers from the tech industry, and they work alongside a high school teacher in a first period classroom to co-teach computer science courses. We do this all over the country. We’re in 329 high school classes. We’re working with over 750 volunteers from the tech industry, and that represents 225 schools across 25 states, and we’re expecting that number to go way up next year.
[Brett] And John, just real quick, we forgot to put this on the slide, but those volunteers are from over 400 tech companies and organizations nationwide, which is really cool, also.
[John] Another quick thing to note: None of the courses, none of the products, none of the things that we use in the courses are not Microsoft products. We couldn’t do this job effectively if people thought we were trying to sell something. That’s not what we’re about. That’s really important to us for everyone to understand when we do this message.
[John] Finally, our curriculum. We have three very rigorous project-based curricula, and games play a large role in all of them. We’ve found that game-based assignments have broad appeal across race, gender, socioeconomic status, and many other factors, which makes them a great teaching tool.
[John] There’s a great TED Talk by Daphne Bavelier. She’s a professor at the University of Geneva. She tangibly studies games in her lab. She’s found that gamers have better attention, not worse, despite all the things the media will tell you. They have sharper vision on average compared to people who don’t game. They resolve visual conflicts faster, they process visual clutter better, and they also perform mental rotation tests more accurately than people who don’t game. What’s really, really amazing is that she found people who don’t typically game can benefit from this really rapidly. Ten hours a week of playing action games can show results and improvement in cognitive function in the mental rotation test for up to five months afterwards.
[John] In 2012 there was a large meta-analysis of almost a hundred thousand students with the word “game” in the title, and this was their big takeaway: Relative to other instruction conditions, digital games showed significant positive effects on science, math, and literacy outcomes. So, this, according to Douglas Clark, who was one of the authors, has shifted the conversation. Asking, “Are games good?” or “Are they bad?” in education is no longer the question we should be asking. It’s: “How can we use them to the best of their aptitude?”
[Brett] How do we use this in an educational environment? How do we use this in the classroom? There’s a lot of great things we can do here. We’re going to talk about three main approaches, three top-line approaches here. The first is probably the most obvious: engagement. Students tend to be more engaged when there are gaming activities in the classroom. This is not going to be earth-shattering to anybody in this room. The next piece of this is motivation. We can affect students’ motivation by using gaming activities. There’s an immediate feedback loop in most gaming activities. There’s an opportunity for them to very quickly and very definitively find out if they’ve been successful or not. Immediate feedback in gaming really helps them keep that cycle and stay motivated to continue.
[Brett] The last piece of this and maybe the biggest piece is: we can change students’ mindset by talking to them about games rather than traditional classroom activities. They are used to being successful in games. Students are also used to having to maybe try a few times in games. They’re used to not getting it right the first time. They’re not used to that in a classroom setting, for whatever reason. There’s a lot of students that believe they should be able to get it right absolutely easily the first time; if they can’t they’re just too dumb, and they should give up. So by moving into a gaming environment we change that mindset. We come up with the acceptance of failure and the acceptance of repetition, and it gets them more comfortable with the notion that it’s OK to need to go multiple times and make mistakes before you get where you need to be.
[Brett] Alright. Let’s talk about the skill trees. So this is three different ways that you can think of from a student perspective games being used in the classroom, and I’m going to talk about these right now from the bottom-up, and we’ll go through them in more detail from the top-down. Bottom one there is the Play skill tree. This is going to be the most obvious one. Playing games in class. Playing games as part of your education. There’s a lot of different ways you can do this, and we’ll talk about some great examples of it. This is just simple gameplay. We are consumers of a game. Second one from the bottom, or send one from the top, depending on your perspective: game creation. Or not game creation, content creation. You might also think of this as modification, or skinning, or add-ons. This is where we take an existing game – might be a commercial game, might be a custom game that’s been designed for the educational purpose, and the students create some new content for it. So they’re not creating the game. They’re also not playing the game. They’re contributing to them game with some new materials. And then at the top, game design. This is when you’re actually designing a game or implementing a game from the ground-up as part of the academic activity. This can be influenced by existing games. You don’t have to contrive a whole new concept here, but we’re usually looking for something in this skill tree that’s a little bit beyond “I’m just going to take Jeopardy, and I’m going to re-theme it as World History Jeopardy.” That’s not really game design. That’s gonna be more content creation, because I’m just going to be creating more content that’s themed around world history. So: design, creation, and play. That’s what we’re going to talk about.
[Brett] Level One. Let’s talk about levelling up your design skill tree. So Level One: simple review games. You’re going to hear this theme a lot. To me, at least Level one integration of games is this review, drill, or practice games. That’s the gamification sort of thing. So this would be: it’s the end of the unit, and I ask my students, “I want you to design a game that incorporates the thing that you just learned.” If you do this in the classroom, a lot of the time you end up with something that looks an awful lot like Jeopardy, or Trivial Pursuit, or Family Feud, or any game that involves a lot of challenges or question-answer, and they just make the questions or content be about whatever the subject is. Next thing we can do: What we’re going to call Level Two is: When you’re designing or implementing games that really apply the concepts that you’ve been learning. This can end up with something very contrived. So an example of this would be: You’re gonna ask your students to create some sort of dungeon-crawl game, where, instead of fighting monsters or finding items or unlocking doors, they somehow have to do something in the dungeon-crawl that is related to whatever the subject of concept you’re teaching is. It’s not bad. It’s better than just answering questions. But it’s still going to feel a little bit contrived, and it’s still gonna be more about taking the concepts that they’ve learned elsewhere and integrating them into the game than it is about really learning the concepts through creating the game. When you can learn the concepts through designing or implementing the game, itself, that’s when we hit Level Three. And I’ll be honest. From my perspective and in my experience, this is extremely difficult. It’s difficult because your learning objectives really have to have something to do with the game design process, itself. So if you’re teaching game design, you can do something like this, where you can have some really cool activities where the game design process is part of what they’re learning by doing it. In TEALS, which we talk to you a little bit about before, in our curricula, we said we use games in a lot of different ways, and we’re going to highlight some of the ways we do it. We think we do this at these higher levels. You may disagree, but we’re going to talk about what we do. For Level Three design, this is in our Intro Computer Science course. Most of our projects are game assignments. They are recreations or riffs or watered-down versions of popular, traditional, well-known games. So things like a Super Mario Brothers-style platform game. Game of Pong. Game of Space Invaders. A text adventure in the vein of Zork. Pokemon game. Tic-tac-toe. Oregon Trail. All of these things. They are creating these games as part of their projects in our project-based curriculum, and so they are learning and practicing their programming skills by designing and implementing these games, and there is actually a design element here. We don’t just tell them, “This is what Zork was; go make Zork.” We tell them, “This is broadly what a text adventure game is. Create your own text adventure. Have some rooms, and have doorways between the rooms, and have some items you have to pick up and whatever else.” There’s actually a design element there. We’ve made the process of designing and creating that game part of the way the students learn the concepts, and that to us is what that Level Three integration is about.
[Brett] All right, next skill tree: creation. Remember, this is content creation, as opposed to game creation, which we call design. So Level One here: again, Jeopardy-style game here, Trivial Pursuit, Family Feud. You are writing questions. You are creating content that demonstrates mastery. So this is filling in the gaps of another game, and at the most basic levels, it’s about show me that you know what you know by making someone else prove to you that they know what you should know, or something like that. Once again, Level One is awesome. I don’t want you do walk out of here with the idea that if you’re only doing Level One, you’re a complete failure, and you’re not really doing games. That’s not the point at all. This is the first step, and anything that involves games still has all of those benefits we talked about before. But if you want to try to level that up, Level Two to us is where we’re doing exactly what we started to talk about here. We’re connecting the game content with other elements from a class. So the first example, I’d say – We talked about Civ a little while ago. During a social studies unit, you might ask students to design a new culture that could be played in the game Civ that doesn’t already exist, similar to the ones that are already in there, but related to something they’ve just studied, or open-ended research project. Pick a world culture that’s not in Civ, and design a Civ module that represents that culture.
[Brett] Level Three here’s when creating the content is really exploring the material, exploring the concepts. So my favorite example of this is: There’s a level creator for Portal 2, and you can imaging – Think back to your typical high school physics class, and your lab’s on, say, gravity, or conservation of momentum, or angular momentum, or anything like that. Rather than designing a lab in class where you drop balls off the side of your building or swing pendulums back and forth, you could design levels in Portal 2 that practice and demonstrate and help you learn the same skills. So you could write a lab lesson: Try to design a level where it causes this to happen, and we’re talking about why that happens and how it all works. So the actual content creation process is engaging with new material, as opposed to just demonstrating previously learned skills or things like that. In TEALS, the way we use this: We have a Minecraft modding project. This is really cool. This was actually – This entire curriculum was written by a former student of ours who’s now a CS student at Western Washington University. What he did is: he went out and took the Minecraft Forge modding package – I am not modder, so if I mangle any of this, I apologize. He took the package. He wrote a few custom extensions. He built a bunch of lessons that use that package to create new items, entities, blocks, other things in Minecraft. And so through this, you’re modding Minecraft, you’re actually introducing new things to the game. There’s all of their computer science objectives here. We’re learning to extend classes, and we’re learning to utilize properties and attach state objects and all of that. But the other really great thing about this is when we introduce this project, typically students have not worked with third-party libraries before. In our CS classes, they’ve pretty much owned the universe in every program they’ve created up to this point, so we also have learning objectives here of getting used to code that somebody else wrote. And those of you who are software engineers in the room know that is one of the hardest things in the world to do, and you don’t do it in school very often, so you get to the real world, and you’re like, “Wait, so I can’t change that method to do what I want it to? That blows my mind. I don’t understand.” So it’s a really cool project, and it’s a really cool way to use this content creation, this modding, to engage with these lessons.
[Brett] Last one: play. This is the play skill tree. We said this was going to be the most obvious, and kind of the easiest point of entry for an educator. Level One: classroom games. We have all done these at one point or another. This is Review Jeopardy. This is a Trivial Pursuit game. We had a really cool one that one of our curriculum developers found called Grudgeball, which is this weird combination of Family Feud and basketball. It’s very neat, but it’s another riff on a review game. Great thing to do. Gamification works. But we can do more. So Level Two: This is when you find games that exemplify concepts or that demonstrate things. So my favorite personal example of this: Settlers of Catan is an incredible case study in economics. Supply and demand, asymmetric valuation, variations in valuations – suddenly wood is worth a whole lot more to me than it used to be. So you can imagine playing Catan in your classroom and then talking about any of these concepts. Similarly, Angry Birds: parabolic motion. You can play Angry Birds and talk about: Why did that shot work, and the other one didn’t? Talk about forces. Talk about angles. All of these are great ways of presenting the material in a more interesting way, but you probably need some extra scaffolding or some extra assignments before, after, or during the gameplay in order to really make this work. You’re probably not just going to play Angry Birds and suddenly understand parabolic motion. You’re going to want to talk about it afterwards and really go through: Why did that work out that way? What are the forces in play here? What’s the math that’s involved? Getting to Level Three is when I could just have you play this game, and you are going to learn something, end of story. There’s a great game called Lightbot, which is a little programming game. It’s a Flash game, and you have this cute little robot with a light bulb on his head, and he has to run around and solve puzzles by following the instructions you give him. Just by playing this game, and really just by playing any programming game, you’re learning computational thinking, which is one of the core skills in computer science education right now. You’re learning how to think algorithmically to break problems down into steps, to anticipate problems that might come up and program in ways to overcome them. So just by playing Lightbot, you’re going computational thinking. You’re going to learn to think like a programmer. That’s that Level Three gameplay that we’re talking about. So how do we do Level Three in TEALS? This one’s near and dear to my heart, because I helped write it. We have created a custom programming game that we have call, very creatively, Space Battle, despite the fact that there’s very little battling involved. In the game, students are programming spaceships. They are autonomous. Once they start playing the game, we’re just going to connect the ship to our network, and it’s going to run, and everybody is hands-off, and when we do this in classrooms, it’s really cool, because everyone just gathers around the projector at the front of the room, because they’ve got nothing to do. The die has been cast. And they watch, and they yell, and they scream. And we have teachers three doors down the hall who tell us to be quiet; they’re trying to give a final exam. True story. What’s going on here, though: This is gameplay, because the programming is the play. We’re not implementing a game, here. They are implementing a ship, and that is how you play this game. So you can see our learning objectives are very similar to the Minecraft ones. A lot of talking about third-party libraries, because we’ve written libraries, and we don’t give them access to the code. They’re using all kinds of programming skills in various different environments. Really cool ones are the last two. Working with documentation – the fact that they actually, you know, read stuff to figure out how the libraries we’ve written for them work. And for the first time in most of their experiences they’re working in an event-driven paradigm instead of a linear execution environment, which may or may not mean something to you depending on how familiar with programming you are. But the point is they don’t just say, this is where you start, this is where you stop, and this is what you do in between. They have to react to the things that are going on in the world around them, so it’s a very different environment.
[John Jannone] There’s an amazing TED talk by someone named Jane McGonigal, and she brought up a really interesting point. Between 2004 and 2012, nearly 6 million years of World of Warcraft has been played. That’s in 2012. I’m slightly embarrassed and proud that about 6 months of that has been from me. But if that’s overwhelming for you, think of it this way: 5.93 million years ago, the first human ancestors stood up. That’s how much time we’ve invested in this. Call of Duty Black Ops: 68 thousand hours were played within one month after release. It’s now estimated that we’re spending about 3 billion hours as a race playing online games. Ninety to 99%, depending on who you ask, of young people are playing video games. An average young person who has a strong gaming culture will spend about 10 thousand hours playing games by the time they’re 21. Why is that number important? It just so happens that’s about the same amount of time you’d spend from 5th grade to high school graduation if you had perfect attendance. Imagine how you can use these numbers and use games, and if we could harness this time in an educational way, the impacts and world problems we could solve.
[Brett] If you would like to support the efforts to get computer science education to more high schools using some of these activities that we talked about, there are at least two ways you can do that. One: if you are a parent of a high schooler, if you are a high schooler, if you are a high school teacher, if you went to high school, if you live near a high school, you are a great candidate to be an advocate for better education in your high schools or the ones you know about, and we would love to give you some information about how you can help us bring TEALS and, by extension, computer science education, to any high school anywhere in the country you happen to know about. We’re happy to talk to you about that. If you are a tech industry professional of some kind, and you’d be interested in volunteering your time and skills for us to help students learn how to program and learn computer science, we’d love to talk to you about how you can get involved in that way, as well. You see, there’s two separate pages on our website: tealsk12.org/volunteers for volunteers, tealsk12.org/schools for schools, and with that, we’re going to officially say we’re done, because the enforcers are about to tell me I’m done. Look at that.
[Pius, narration] If you’re interested in watching a video of the full hour-long presentation, you can find a link to it in the show notes for this episode.
[Pius] I spoke with Brett and John after their session on the last day of PAX to get some more context behind their work.
[Pius, in convention hall] 30% of the people who listen to the podcast, they might be – they probably are engineers or businesspeople. How would they know if they’re gonna be the right person to support you guys?
[Brett, in convention hall] The most important thing, honestly, is that they’re invested in this, that they think getting CS education into high schools is a worthwhile effort. It’s something worth putting their time into. They’re willing to make the commitment. We’re very honest with our volunteers. This is a big time commitment. It’s not just show up to school and hour a week and talk to kids and go off and not think about it. It’s a big thing. And not everybody has the time for that, and we know that, and we respect that. We have other ways that we can work with people who are interested even if they can’t make that commitment. But I think – and John, you’ve recruited a lot more volunteers than I have – but I would say, it’s really about, is this something you care about? Is this something you’re willing to commit to?
[John, in convention hall] In terms of volunteers, what I’m looking for is: Obviously, you need to know what you’re talking about. So our filtering system is: We’re looking for people with at least a higher, upperclassmen level of computer science, studying at the degree level, or an academic, so graduate, PhD students, or people with a couple of years of industry experience under their belt. Our curriculum, we help train them in over the summer. Software engineers are good at programming languages, so that is something that we are comfortable having people knowing from all sorts of languages join the program. We’ve even had some people that were very closely related to coding and programming do our program and be very successful, who saw the message that Brett had said and upskilled themselves and worked with other engineers as part of their team. So I agree that the most important thing is engagement, but we are also looking for that academic, more professional background. And also, importantly, a willingness to admit that there’s some things they need to know about education. So all the volunteers go through roughly a fifteen to thirty minute interview with a regional manager. We talk to them about what it’s like to be in front of a classroom. We ask them, hey, why are you doing this? Why is this important to you? We’ll talk to them about, not technical questions, because we trust usually if they’ve gotten to me or another regional manager, they’ve probably seen they’re the real deal, and we want people who are knowledgeable, but we’re not going to make them do test questions. We’ll say, hey, how would you explain this to a student? Or what would you do in this circumstance? Or what would you do with this student who not only debugged his code and found seventeen new errors but also forgot to save and lost his whole project? We try to put those scenarios into that.
[John] If you want a shorter answer to that initial question, we said we’re looking for people with software experience, either academically or professionally, and someone who really wants to be there.
[Pius] OK, awesome. And let’s talk about the other half of this. We’ve got teachers in schools or educators who clearly have to be invested, too. Brett you were saying that teachers have a lot to do, so how much work does this entail on their part? And let’s say they’re one of those teachers that didn’t have a computer science degree. What is the realistic amount of work they’re going to have to do once they’re in the program?
[Brett] It’s going to be extra work for sure. A lot of times – and we know this isn’t always possible – but we’ll ask the school if they can to arrange an extra free period for their teacher, because in addition to all the normal requirements that come along with teaching a class, we’re asking them to learn computer science on the side, as well. We try not to put too much extra burden on the teachers for all the reasons that we talked about. You know, they’re busy. They’ve got a lot going on. In our heaviest models, in our co-teach model, where they’re bringing in that full team, and they don’t have a lot of experience, the volunteers will help out with some of the things like grading and doing lesson planning, as well. So we’re taking away some of the burden from the teacher, not all, but we’re also replacing it some with the desire for them to learn computer science. We do that over the long term. It’s usually two years as the target for handoffs. We’re not asking them to flip through once and all of a sudden be an expert in everything. We work with them to support them as best we can.
[John] I would say to get started is really easy. All we ask is that the school submit the application. It’s a about a twenty to thirty minute process, basic information. From there we do an interview with the Regional Manager. Basically, the required people are a campus-level decision-maker and the teacher that wants to do the program. We encourage the schools to involve their guidance counselors so they can talk accurately about our classes to students and also the master scheduler, because we have to run our course first period or really, realistically, before 9:30 comes, so that people can get to their day job after volunteering in the program. But that’s all it takes to get started. It’s noncommittal. If you have a fathom of an idea that you want to do TEALS, I’d say put in your application, and the Regional Manager will get in touch with you.
[John] Initial findings and the loose numbers that we have is, it’s about an 88% success rate for teachers who do our program, go through the two years starting at the intro, starting at, you know, no experience, and working their way up. Regardless of curriculum, they have to start at intro, about 88% of them will be able to head off to the next level of our program.
[Brett] I mean, part of our training – So most of our training at this point focuses on our volunteers, but we also do a little bit of training for our classroom teachers, as well. All of that training – it’s not focused on computer science. It’s not focused on logistics. It’s exactly these sorts of things. We do a little bit of talking about what is a project-based curriculum. What does that mean? How do you grade a computer science project? It’s harder to be objective. There are going to be so many different answers.
[Brett] We provide rubrics for all of our projects, so that’s a starting point. But we also talk to our volunteers and teachers about – So, face-to-face grading, it’s not necessarily: I’m going to grade off points, but let’s sit down together. Show me what you’ve done. Talk to me about it. I’m going to assess your understanding that way. We talk about unit tests or testing as a very objective way of grading, which can’t be the only grade you give. You can’t just run a set of tests and call that good enough, but it can be a contributing factor there. Again, it can be subjective. And so there’s a certain amount of getting comfortable with the notion of: it’s not a math test. I can’t just check how many correct answers you’ve got and give you a percentage based on that. You’ve got to come at it with a different mindset.
[John] A school does not have to partner with us to use some of our resources. We provide under Create Commons license our Intro and AP CS A curriculum for any school that wants it. You can’t find our Intro curriculum by Googling “TEALS Intro.” It’s on gitBook. It’s actually published as a gitBook, both first and second semester. Our AP, we hit a little bit better, because it is a standardized test. That’s obviously important. But if you’re interested, you can submit a contact form requesting access, and we can set up an account giving you access to those materials.
[Brett] For me personally, I would love to see some data around – and some of this exists – I would love to see data around eventual outcomes and success in computer science based on when you were first introduced to it and in what manner, whether it’s self-taught or taught in a formal class setting or in an after-school program or in a community group or things like that, and whether or not that has an impact or your eventual success. Like, are you going to be more successful if you start early, or does it not make a difference? Are you going to be more successful if you do this in school or after school, or does it not make a difference? Because we know we want to see more people learning computer science, and we know there’s a shortage of engineers, especially in this country, but there are a lot of different ways we can go about solving that problem, and TEALS is taking one great approach, I think, and one that’s going to make it accessible to a lot of students. But it would be cool to see what else is out there and how does that impact things.
[John] On the specially games and education side of things, I’m most excited to see the question kind of shift, like we talked about. I want to see, not, hey, is this a good tool? That’s been kind of beaten to death at this point. But, how can we make this tool better? What diseases and conditions can be treated using games as a therapeutic device? And it’s starting. There are three or four organizations here doing great work with that using games as an impetus for social and medical change, and I’m just interested to see where that goes.
[Pius] Awesome. Thank you so much, guys. Hope to see you at the next PAX. Take care.
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[Pius] To learn more TEALS at Microsoft, about the PAX conference, or about any of the other resources mentioned on the episode, just check the show notes on iTunes, Soundcloud, or your podcast player. Remember to subscribe and review if you can! Connect with the show on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other places online, which you can find through the podcast website: www.k12engineering.net.
[Pius] Our closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons Attribution License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my studio, Pios Labs, and you can support Pios Labs at www.patreon.com/pioslabs. Thanks for listening, and tune in next time.
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