Engaging Students Using Game Design

Guest Post by Brian Wetzel, Zulama Certified Trainer and Star Teacher

pic04Who is not interested in games? Games build relationships, teach the concept of rules, and, in serious games, promote the idea of consequences in choices we make. Most games also provide the opportunity to spark creativity in style, gameplay, and strategy. Creating them utilizes a multitude of skills, including elements of STEAM, and other 21st century skills, such as problem-solving and collaboration.

As a game designer, one must consider all these factors when brainstorming the creation of the next big game. Whether that game is a board game, card game, or video game is irrelevant. Game designers must make their games easy to learn, hard to master, and adaptable to different styles and preferences, among other characteristics. Otherwise, a game can be doomed from the beginning.

pic07As a teacher of game design, I make every attempt to ensure my students understand these characteristics and plan for them at the beginning. Elements of STEAM present themselves instantaneously and consistently throughout the process. In the early phases of design, artistic elements are used when drawing and designing graphics that will be used in the game. Engineering skills such as 3D modeling are often considered for game pieces and/or characters. Mathematics is constantly used when deciding proper size and proportions as well as distances that are necessary to be traveled for game sprites. Finally, in most cases, technology is used for the creation of each of these pieces.

As I continue to help my students in their quests to become game designers, I hope to see consistent progression of these skills. While I do not teach traditional courses like science and math, I have already witnessed progress in the areas of curiosity and creativity. My students are growing into young adults who are more curious about their mistakes and why they are occurring. They don’t rely on me as much to explain the problem(s), but rather take it upon themselves to explore what they have done to create the problem. Most importantly, they don’t see their mistakes as failure, but rather learning experiences.

BxL9r4VIYAA9gJ6As I continue to help create the gamemakers of tomorrow, I hope to get feedback of the same fashion from their other teachers. I hope this curiosity spreads to other areas of their lives. I am sure it will. In my opinion, this growing sense of motivation and curiosity is not a switch they can turn off. It will become habit in all areas of their lives. They will continue to seek understanding rather than just ask for answers. And although they will continue to make mistakes, to them, it will only translate to more learning.

Brian Wetzel

Upon completing his undergraduate work, Brian began teaching in 2005. For the first seven years of his career, he served as a 7th grade mathematics teacher for the Licking Heights Local School District. During this time, he saw the value of technology in education and decided to pursue this interest by earning his Master’s degree in Educational Technology. Upon completing his graduate degree, Brian transitioned into teaching technology-related courses at the high school level for Centerburg Local Schools. As he continues his career, Brian plans to help students enhance their technology skills as well as help other educators learn ways to integrate technology into their curricula.

The Holographic Quality Of STEAM

dmarinelliGuest Post by Don Marinelli, Ph.D, Co-founder of Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center

Have you ever equated “STEAM” with a “hologram”? It takes a creative thinker like Dr Marinelli to paint this [3D] picture!

A hologram is a photographic recording of a light field, created with a laser rather than a lens, and is used to display a fully three-dimensional image of the holographed subject.

In a holograph, the image is captured and contained within every piece of the holographic plate. If you cut a hologram into a hundred parts, you might think that each individual part will show a separate area of the image, but that’s not the case. With holograms, each of the smaller parts still contains a reflection of the complete, whole, 3-dimensional image.

That’s precisely the case with STEAM education. Each distinctive element of STEAM contains all the other elements. Think about your favorite animated movie, say, FROZEN. That movie, a marvel of animation, a beautiful example of bringing imaginary characters to life and endowing them with human attributes, is impossible to create without science, technology, engineering, and math, all in the service of the intrinsic “art” of the movie.

The science involves anatomy, light, timing, color, physiognomy; the math is manifest in proportion, object relationships, depth perception, cause-and-effect, and other fundamental Newtonian laws. The technology exists in the form of the computers, cameras and lighting used to make and store the movie digits or cells, while the engineering is the projection, audio, 3D and 4D systems, and the actual cinema space where we watch the movie.

We cannot divorce any one of these elements from the experiential whole without detrimental effect.

And yet, we do so in education. Every day. How strange.

STEAM is all around us. A building that is functional and yet impresses us by its design is the result of STEAM. Math is the engineering foundation for the building’s tensile strength, weight bearing stresses, and ability to withstand forces of nature. The building houses myriad technologies both digital (Internet, sensors, monitors), as well as analog (plumbing, conduits, electrical). And, it all comes together as an architectural marvel, an artistic sculpture in the cityscape.

STEAM is a technical way of saying – and promoting – what used to be called “Whole Brain Thinking.” It is the natural bridging of left-brain organizational, systematic thought with right-brain non-linearity and creativity. And, what is truly remarkable is that this form of thinking is an ontological reality for all children. It is manifest in a child’s curiosity and desire to make meaning.

Society has somehow devised the means of educating it out of children.

It is time for that to stop.


Join us for our next live Remake Learning Hangout on March 29th at 2:30 PM EST, STEAM: Bringing the Arts to STEM. We will continue this discussion by providing strategies to bring STEAM education to a classroom near you!


Announcing New Short Courses!

Three new Short Courses are now ready and available for Zulama schools!

BB Sub RobotArcade Game Design

Students will use Scratch and a Hummingbird robotics kit to build their own arcade game! Learning the fundamentals of game design and coding, they will use LEDs, motors, and sensors to create a game that lights up and moves.

IMG_2968Science Game Design

Science is everywhere, from tiny bacteria to space travel! Your middle schoolers will team up with friends to build and play a game about a popular science topic of their choice!

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 12.18.20 PMGamestar Mechanic Game Design

Your students will learn to apply five elements of game design to build a game using Gamestar Mechanic. They will create a design document, prototype, and play their game with friends!

We Want Your Feedback!

For a limited time, we’re opening up the opportunity to be the first to use these new 15-18 hour courses in your classroom, whether your school has purchased the Short Courses or not!

In return, we’d like to hear your feedback about your experience with the new courses.

What we ask from you:

  • Complete a 5 minute click and submit survey at the conclusion of the course to let us know how your class enjoyed the course activities and project
  • Take a short followup call from Zulama to share your course experience with us
  • Your classroom meets the requirements (below) for the course you’d like to teach
  • You are willing to share samples images of your student’s work

Only with feedback from our valued teachers and administrators, can we continue to bring innovative and engaging new content for your students to enjoy! We couldn’t do what we do without you!

This offer is only available through the end of Summer 2016, so if you’d like to take advantage of this opportunity, talk to your administrators, and send us an email at sarah.avery@zulama.com for more information!

Classroom requirements for each course are listed below:

Arcade Game Design Requirements

  • Access to access Scratch 2 (free)
  • Hummingbird Duo Base Kits, can be purchased here.

Science Game Design Requirements

  • Must teach in a grade 6 through grade 9 classroom, preferably in a science classroom

Gamestar Mechanic Game Design Requirements



It’s Jam Time!


by Bev Vaillancourt, Editorial Director

On the heels of a very successful climate game jam held last September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is planning another game jam for April 15 – April 24, 2016. The theme is “Water”! While game jams usually are “jammed” into a 48-hour time period with no breaks, the Spring game jam has a much different structure.

In order to accommodate school schedules, the NOAA’s Spring game jam will span 10 days, with a total of 48 hours dedicated to designing a game within the 10 days. This allows teachers and community groups a lot of flexibility. An entire school day can be dedicated to the game jam, with time spent on following days to improve the game. Teachers also could opt to restrict the game jam one concentrated time period with follow up iteration before the prototype is ready for review.

Four age categories have been established for the Spring Game Jam:

  • K-5
  • 6-8
  • 9-12
  • 13-16

A variety of game development tools will be allowed, from basic paper prototypes to Scratch to GameSalad to Unity. Individuals will be competing for top game design honors within their age group and within their game design tool category.

Specific science categories related to water have been identified, as well. Game Designers will be able to choose from several important water related topics including including Changing Precipitation Patterns to Marine Biodiversity to Polar Issues, and much more. The Spring game jam offers a very unique opportunity for students to work as design teams, learn a lot of science facts, consider very important and timely environmental issues, and have a lot of fun building a game that can be used to teach others about water issues.

Interested in learning more? If you are wondering how to organize and conduct a game jam, stay tuned. Zulama will be providing you with “how to” information in mid-March. More to come soon on the NOAA website, as well! Take a break with your students and enjoy creating a game for NOAA. Who knows? You may join the September game design team from Elizabeth Forward High School and have your game showcased on the NOAA website!

Hot Off the Presses!

A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science and reported in Education Week (Volume 35, No. 21) highlights that showcasing exceptional work has a negative impact on struggling students. Researchers Todd Rogers of Harvard University and Avi Feller of the University of California found that when all students attempt similar assignments, struggling students quickly size up the possibility of generating work of equal quality to high functioning students and lose interest in the assignment. The results of this important study underscores the value of students working in design teams where each member of the team brings his or her strengths to the project. It’s not that students should be shielded from comparison of student accomplishments. Rather it is students learning that measuring up really means setting personal goals for achievement and helping others build their skills in a collaborative way. It’s the power of game design in every Zulama classroom.

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 you designed 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, PA, and Harmony High School, FL, on January 18, 2016. Games designed by teams from both schools were chosen from several games created as part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sponsored climate game jam. Their games were showcased alongside games created by professional game designers and university students 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 students, certainly is an excellent example of a board game prototype, several young players commented on what a good digital game it could be.

Playtesting Flood Prevention.

Playtesting Flood Prevention.

For Zulama students to be part of the Smithsonian event 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. We hope several Zulama students decide to 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 day. The pride of accomplishment was quite evident with three talented game design students from Elizabeth Forward 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.