The Making of a Game Jam
By Aileen Owens, Director of Technology and Innovation and Melissa Unger, STEAM Consultant — South Fayette School District
Through the generous support of The Grable Foundation, South Fayette Township School District is providing outreach and support to neighboring districts, Fort Cherry School District and Manchester Academic Charter School (MACS), to build innovation through computer programming, engineering, and design. For six weeks, students from each of the three districts were led in computer programming initiatives by Melissa Unger, South Fayette STEAM Consultant and Outreach Coordinator, building video games, quizzes, and interactive stories using Scratch block-based programming language. As a culminating activity, eighty students from the three partner schools came together on February 20 for a collaborative engineering, design, and programming challenge called GameJam. Each of the competing teams were comprised of students from different schools whose first meeting occurred on game day. Working with students who had not been introduced earlier, made their task to create Rube Goldberg machines that interacted with both the real and virtual worlds, even more challenging – and fun!
Photo by Norton Gusky
Students were divided into ten teams and each child was given a specific job. Input and Output Programmers designed Scratch programs while the Material Engineers focused on creating a marble track. Captains interacted with other teams to figure out the best way to connect their machines and Design Specialists worked on the visual appeal of the projects.
Given cardboard and other recyclables, students were asked to create a track that could carry a marble from one end of the table to the other. While that was a challenge in itself, the students added even more to their machines by creating a means for the physical elements to interact with computer software. Ms. Unger explained that although specific designs varied from group to group, a typical machine incorporated a motion sensor. After the marble activated the sensor, the computer started a short Scratch animation. When the animation ended, a motor hooked up to the other side of the computer propelled a different marble back in motion and it continued down the track.
At the end of the GameJam, students gathered together and watched with eager anticipation as each group tested out their machines. For Prateek Jukalkar, a middle school student who served as a team captain, “The best thing about Game Jam was when we got to see everybody’s completed projects at the end!”
Aileen Owens, Director of Technology and Innovation for South Fayette School District, explained, “GameJam was more than a computer programming and engineering challenge, it was a team building exercise that brought students together in a way that very naturally built a positive community spirit among participating schools. It was heart-warming to see the energy and excitement students shared as they worked together for the first time to create their unique machine.”
Although students did not know each other at the beginning of the day, everyone made new friends after eating lunch and working together. Fifth grader Krit Verma explained, “It was neat to get to work with students from other schools. The activities we completed were challenging, but it was nice because there were always teachers there that could help when needed.”
Photo by Norton Gusky
“I liked all the different activities that they had us do, like the roller coaster where two different teams had to connect. But most importantly, I like how we were programming in Scratch,” said fifth grader Connor Hammer.
Learning and fun went hand-in-hand, as GameJammer Jessica Stabile said, “I learned how to accomplish something really creative, but did it in a way that was fun to do. My favorite part of it all was that we were completing designs without any instruction. There was not an adult saying, ‘You have to use this piece and follow these steps.’ Instead, the design was our choice – we could build anything we wanted with the supplies that were available.”
The sentiment of the students was shared by MACS teacher Mrs. Lauren Kruk, who stated that “The day was an incredible opportunity for all students to work together as a team, using the skills they had gained over the course of the program to accomplish a perfect culminating activity. The entire room was filled with engaged students who were passionate and creative. It was one of the most inspiring days of my teaching career so far, and I felt blessed to witness such a wonderful display of learning.”
Reflecting on GameJam, Greg Wensell, South Fayette Intermediate School Prinicpal, explained, “GameJam was a wonderful experience for our students in many ways. It allowed them to utilize some of the technical skills they have learned this year through our STEAM initiatives. Perhaps more importantly though, GameJam provided our students with the chance to collaborate with other students and generate unique solutions to a particular challenge. As educators, we need to develop more and more learning tasks like GameJam for our students.”
Dr. Trisha Craig, Director of Curriculum at Fort Cherry School District, agreed and summed up the event by saying, “The students tackled a complex problem in a short amount of time – dealing effectively with the social, organizational, logistical, programming, and design issues that were set forth. They made new friends and developed confidence in their own abilities. It was a memorable experience for them, one that they will be talking about for a long time.”
Aileen Owens is Director of Technology and Innovation at South Fayette School District. Her focus is on building computational thinking and creativity in the K-12 curriculum. Aileen introduced Scratch computer programming to the 5th, 6th, and 7th grade curriculum.