Zulama Students Shine at Smithsonian Climate Game Showcase

Elizabeth Forward High School (PA) students Alex Winter, Josh Turner, Scott McAlpine showcase their game, Flood Prevention, at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Forward High School (PA) students Alex Winter, Josh Turner, Scott McAlpine showcase their game, Flood Prevention, at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

By Beverly Vaillancourt

As a high school game design student, what would it be like to have a game designed by you showcased at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.? Pretty awesome!

Azure Skies, created by Harmony High School (FL) students, on display at the Smithsonian.

Azure Skies, created by Harmony High School (FL) students, on display at the Smithsonian.

That’s exactly what happened for Zulama students from Elizabeth Forward High School in Pennsylvania and Harmony High School in Florida on January 18, 2016. Games designed by teams from both schools were chosen from several games created last September as part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sponsored climate game jam. The games joined those created by professional game designers and university students showcased at the Smithsonian for museum visitors to play. Three students, Alex Winter, Josh Turner, Scott McAlpine, from Elizabeth Forward, along with teachers Mary Wilson and Alexis Dombrowsky, made the trip to Washington, D.C. to set up their game and watch gamers of all ages playtest it. Museum staff estimated some 600 people visited the two-level game showcase during the afternoon hours. Talk about the ultimate playtest experience!

Unable to make the trip, Harmony High School students sent their game to the Smithsonian for the showcase. Several young gamers admired the art and the complexity of the game. While Azure Skies, the board game created by Harmony High School students, certainly is an excellent example of a board game prototype, several young players commented on what a good digital game it could be, as well. Their comments are a window in the game design process as game ideas move from paper prototype to digital game.

Playtesting Flood Prevention.

Playtesting Flood Prevention.

For Zulama students to be part of the Smithsonian event certainly speaks to their high level game design skills and ability to work effectively as a design team. It also speaks to the investment of their talented teachers who inspire and facilitate student interest in deepening game design knowledge. Zulama congratulates both teams on their success and hopes they use the feedback received from the Washington D.C. showcase to continue to develop their games. NOAA has offered to host both Elizabeth Forward’s and Harmony’s games on the NOAA website featuring science games. That’s quite the pat on the back for these young game designers!

Building on the success of last September’s climate game jam, an early Spring game jam is being planned by NOAA for high school students across the county. Information about the game jam will be shared in a coming newsletter. It’s hoped that several Zulama students participate in the Spring game jam. It’s quite the experience for students to come together as a design team and develop a game prototype in the short span of a school day. The pride of accomplishment was quite evident with three talented game design students from Elizabeth Forward High School who saw their game from the perspective of players new to their game through the showcase experience. The feedback that was shared was an incredibly valuable and a deeply important learning experience for them.

The glass globe given to the winning high school teams from Elizabeth Forward and Harmony by NOAA and the Smithsonian are as valued as any school sports trophy. Zulama applauds their efforts and the efforts of all students who took part in last September’s game jam.

The Growing Impact of Game Design Programs


Ed Games Expo, held at 1776, Washington, D.C., December 9, 2015

Bev Vaillancourt, M.Ed.

Educator, Editorial Director for Zulama

The Higher Education Video Game Alliance (HEVGA) is a “professional organization of video game scholars and programs at universities across the county and internationally.” Attending the 2015 HEVGA mid-December conference at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., was inspiring and enlightening. It simply was delightful being part of an environment inclusive of incredibly bright individuals who not only believe in the value of game design, but work hard to foster growth of game design programs and game-based learning for all ages.

According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), today there are fully 496 post secondary game design programs found in colleges and universities across the county, including Hawaii and Alaska. Students graduating from these programs have high paying jobs waiting for them as they navigate over 1,640 game design companies just in the United States.

With consumers in the United States spending upwards of $23B on the game design industry, opportunities abound for qualified and talented game designers and programmers. As one game design company executive told me at the Ed Games Expo, “Send us your students. We start at $65K per year.” Zulama is proud of its contribution in addressing the ever-expanding need within the game design industry for talented and highly skilled individuals who understand the design process and know how to work within a design team environment.


Texas A & M University presenting a student-designed art history game at the HEVGA conference, December 10, 2015.

As I listened to professors at the HEVGA conference share their game design curriculums and student projects found at their universities and colleges, I felt more and more proud to be part of all that Zulama does to bring those same experiences to students in grades 6 – 12. “Work in design teams to create a game.” – our Zulama students do that. “Develop content driven games.” – Zulama students do that. “Work in Unity” – Yes. “Have internship opportunities.” – That, too! Zulama offers a four-year game design, programming, and 3D modeling standards-based curriculum to high school students, opening a wide horizon of college and career opportunities. As Zulama’s founder and CEO, Nikki Navta’s vision of creating a game design curriculum for high school students just a handful of years ago truly was visionary, and today a vibrant reality.

“It’s not the facts that matter, it’s the connections between the facts that matter.” —Dave Rejeski, Wilson Center, Washington, D.C.

It is a joy for me to meet Zulama students in their classrooms and hear their enthusiasm for learning and for game design. It is refreshing to see so many engaged school administrators and teachers dedicated to remaking learning for their students, with an eye to the future rather than being tethered to tried and failed educational systems of the past.

The collaborative social space of game design is seen in every Zulama classroom, and certainly powered every conversation at the 2015 HEVGA conference. To think analytically, collaboratively, and creatively builds agency for critical thinking and innovation. This is game design at its core. From computer science programs for young children to the Zulama Entertainment Technology Curriculum through the myriad of higher education game design program offerings, the future is bright and the horizons wide for future game designers and the limitless and collective ability to “connect the facts” they bring to the global learning network.

An Open Letter to Zulama Teachers and Administrators


By Bev Vaillancourt

In my travels, I’ve had the great privilege of visiting many Zulama Schools from Florida to Maine and the many states in between. Without question, Zulama Teachers and Administrators stand out as a very special group of educators. At this time of thanksgiving, it seems like an especially perfect opportunity to thank the Zulama Community for all that they do!

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 1.10.42 PMThank you for being willing to step outside of your comfort zone.

Zulama Teachers allow students, at times, to take on the role of teacher within their classrooms. This essential pedagogy comes from a deep understanding that the best way to learn is to teach.

They help students seek answers to questions that may perplex them, as well, recognizing that students thrive when allowed to be critical thinkers and subject matter experts, be that in coding or the core content that goes into making an educational game.

Thank you for creating classrooms that students want to be in.

Zulama Teachers, quite simply, are great teachers who are fostering a most needed paradigm shift in education that will take schools from quiet desks in a row to redesigned learning spaces that encourage communication and design.

Zulama Teachers tell students that it is perfectly acceptable to make mistakes on their journey to success. And, with that, they build a culture of collaboration and creativity in their classrooms one day at a time.

For many students, the Zulama classroom is their home base where they spend their time during lunch or during a free period, and where they hesitate to leave when the bell rings for the next class. I’ve seen this play out over and over again when visiting Zulama classrooms. It is, in every way, inspiring.

IMG_2965Thank you for believing in and inspiring your students.

Zulama Teachers believe in the agency of youth and in youth’s capacity to problem solve and design. They are lifelong learners, and build the deep joy of discovery in their students.

In essence, Zulama Teachers model what we hope students will be – risk takers, who think beyond the obvious to what might be.

We thank you for inspiring your students to think beyond who they are to who they can be. If you ever wondered otherwise, just take a look at the smiles on the faces of the students in your Zulama class. They are genuine and hold great promise. For this, your students thank you, as well.

Thank you for being advocates.

Zulama Teachers could not do what they do so well without the support of Administrators. So, all of us at Zulama tip our hats to the visionary Administrators who introduce Zulama to their schools.

You are in every way agents of change in education, and quite frankly, at first, sometimes the sole advocate and cheerleader of the Zulama Teacher within the school district. You are champions of that very different dynamic that plays out in Zulama classrooms. Work ethic, focus, a climate of mutual respect of individual talents and skills, a level playing field of self-reliant learners with a focus on project based learning: this is the Zulama classroom.

From everyone at Zulama, thank you Zulama Teachers and Administrators for all that you do for the youth of today as we together build their tomorrows. We wish you the Happiest Thanksgiving and a successful rest of the year!

National Climate Game Jam

climate_game_jamWritten in cooperation with Peg Steffins from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On September 30, Zulama students from South Fayette High School and Elizabeth Forward High School in Pennsylvania participated in the National Climate Game Jam at the Carnegie Mellon Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Students from Harmony High School in Harmony, Florida, gathered in their Zulama classroom for the day. From board games, to card games, to digital games, Zulama students put their game design skills to work to create several creative games with a focus on science.


Zulama students at Harmony High School in Osceola, FL work on their Climate Game Jam submission.

Harmony High School hosted 35 student game designers for the day long event. Beginning at 7 a.m. and working non-stop through lunch and into the afternoon, eight design teams made up of student game designers, computer programmers, and artists created a variety of games focused on climate change. Brad Davey and Hilarie Davis, consultants with NOAA, served as resident experts, answering student questions and encouraging student creativity. Bev Vaillancourt from Zulama spent the day at Harmony High School facilitating connections with Peg Steffins from NOAA who communicated with Harmony High School game designers twice during the day via SKYPE to congratulate students on their participation and provide expert assistance when needed. Harmony High School teacher Lynn VanderZyl managed technical questions with ease from her Zulama students throughout the day as they put their GameMaker programming and game design skills to work. According to comments from several students, the climate game jam day was the best school day ever!

“As a former Zulama student I had quite a few friends participating in Pittsburgh’s Climate Game Jam. I saw computer science buffs and garage band musicians work together researching different natural disasters and finding ways to make them battle in their card game. Others were athletes and gamers huddled together looking for ways to fuse resource management and the game “Risk”. After just five minutes observing a Zulama class it is easy to see that at the end of the day, all that matters is learning, playing games, and having fun!”

-Dennis McClintock, Zulama Media Assistant

Zulama students at Harmony High School in Osecola, FL work on their Climate Game Jam submission.

Zulama students at Harmony High School in Osecola, FL work on their Climate Game Jam submission.

The purpose of the National Climate Game Jam was to provide an opportunity for game developers, artists, climate scientists, educators, and youth at sites across the U.S. to consider climate change impacts and develop games that will be shared nationally online and at special showcases in winter 2016. The jam offered a unique opportunity for game designers to build climate game prototypes. At the conclusion of the jam, each development team submitted a 2 minute video for later judging by science and game design experts. Selected games will be eligible for further refinement with assistance by companies such as GlassLabs or if completed later, will be posted on the Smithsonian Learning Lab or Games.noaa.gov.

Sites worked simultaneously around the country October 2-4, each hosting a unique audience.  The largest site was at the Video Game Convention at the DC Convention Center. Zulama students joined game designers in climate game jam sites across the county including:

  • Ward 4, Milwaukee – Students –K-12, colleges, universities
  • Harmony High School, Florida – Students grades 9 -12
  • California Academy of Science – Professional game developers
  • Michigan Technological University – Students K-12
  • Cayuga Nature Center, NY – Educators and students in colleges, universities, technical schools
  • Smithsonian Environmental Research Center – Professional game developers
  • Barnard College, NY – Students in colleges, universities, technical schools
  • University of Oklahoma, National Weather Service – Students in colleges, universities, technical schools

Post jam events will include climate game showcases at the National Museum of Natural History in November, the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco in December, and Koshland Science Museum in late winter. These will highlight selected game products and provide testing opportunities for the teams with the public.

NOAA NOS/CED provided organizational leadership for this event. Cooperating partners included Smithsonian, Koshland Science Center (D.C), GlassLabs, Entertainment Software Association, Wilson Center, California Academy of Science, STEMHero, PoLAR Partnership, Entertainment Software Association, University of Oklahoma (National Weather Service), Paleontological Research Institute (Cornell), Harmony High School (FL), Barnard College (NY), Michigan Technological University (MI), BrainPOP, and Zulama.