A Reflection on South Fayette’s Game Jam

A Reflection on South Fayette’s Game Jam: Design and the Problem-Solving Process

By Norton Gusky


For the past three years I’ve been trying to find common ground with personalized learning and project-based learning. Somewhere in the mix we need to think about work-based elements. Deep Learning brings these pieces together. For the past year I’ve worked with the South Fayette Township School District, near Pittsburgh, PA. They have developed a framework that builds a three-dimensional model.

According to Aileen Owens, the Director of Technology and Innovation for the South Fayette School District, there are three key elements: “(1) a specific problem solving process, (2) characteristics of successful problem solvers or habits of mind, and (3) career vision. The design problem-solving process used in this model is the process practiced by computer scientists and engineers, which is “the ability to think logically, algorithmically, abstractly, and recursively”. It is the ability to take a large abstract idea and break it into smaller easier to solve problem sets. The second aspect of computational thinking includes habits of mind, the characteristics of intelligent and successful problem solvers. These characteristics include confidence dealing with complexity, persistence, a tolerance for ambiguity, and the ability to communicate and work well with others.

The final aspect of computational thinking is career vision. Within each STEAM initiative we instill in students a sense of awareness of career contexts and understanding of how careers reflect their learning. We consider computational thinking, which includes computer programming, to be the new literacy. The process of working effectively and the ability to be innovative with computer-based technology is as important to our children’s future as the basic reading, writing, and mathematics literacies.”

The Making of a Game Jam

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 OwensAileen 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.

Games! Not Just for Playing

Games! Not Just for Playing

By Bev Vaillancourt

Photo by Norton Gusky

Photo by Norton Gusky

Game jams are events where game designers come together to create a new game based on challenges, risk, and rewards. They can occur on a small scale in schools, libraries, and community centers as well as nationally or internationally.  Game jams result in original games that kids get to play. The game is the reward for setting goals, staying on task, completing an assignment, and then determining if the product lives up to expectations (assessment). This is an instructional sequence that is more commonly found in traditional education. Toss in collaboration, social interaction, and self-efficacy, and you have all the makings of an extraordinary game jam, and the makings of game-based education.

Much has been written on the value of games and game design in education. Educators know that games can be used to teach, remediate, and deepen problem-solving skills. Educational games have a wide audience and growing acceptance among teachers and parents as beneficial. Perhaps games are not just for play but can and should be a core component of education – a place where tradition meets innovation.

One of the biggest hurdles schools have in making a shift from traditional education to game-based education is convincing stakeholders (school boards and parents) that rigorous learning and high scores on state assessments can still be achieved. Defining the assessment that occurs when individuals play games is not an easy task.  Yet, strong effort to do just that is occurring at a rapid pace in education. Game based assessment has the eye of testing consortia that are actively developing tests aligned with common core standards.

Beyond the core, it’s even more difficult to quantify the 21st century skills, including self-reliance, creativity, and innovation. Can these critical skills be assessed through playing games and in some way through game design? The answer is “yes,” and it all happens through the authentic learning that comes with designing a game and through the authentic assessment of playtesting.

Photos by Norton Gusky / South Fayette Township Intermediate School Game Jam February 20, 2014

Photos by Norton Gusky / South Fayette Township Intermediate School Game Jam
February 20, 2014

A game jam is structured chaos. It’s a learning environment alive with students seeking viable solutions within social contexts, a place where all students share and participate, and a place where thinking happens.

I’m optimistic that education will evolve to a place where assessment of 21st century skills will be as important as assessment of core content knowledge. One way to help stakeholders understand how games can be used for both assessment of knowledge and assessment of 21st century skills is to have them actively participate in a game jam. Here they can evaluate where knowledge is gained and applied and where 21st century skills are engaged. Stakeholders will participate in a learning environment where ideas are shared, respected, and valued.


Photos by Norton Gusky / South Fayette Township Intermediate School Game Jam
February 20, 2014

With games, kids think critically about important issues and problem solve solutions. They are engaged, see schoolwork as an intellectually enjoyable task, apply strategy heaped with a healthy does of competition, and know fairly quickly if their strategy is successful. If not, their games are not labeled as failures , but as a constructivist experience that holds the opportunity to apply a new and better strategy to accomplish an identified goal.

Kids and stakeholders enjoying the process of game design and playing games is a shared experience that can only bring benefits beyond the game jam day. Games. Not just for playing!

Zulama Best Practices – How to Host a Board Game Jam!

Zulama Best Practices – How to Host a Board  Game Jam!

By Beverly Vaillancourt

Game jams may involve computer-based game design. But your school can start much simpler! Zulama recommends beginning with a board game jam for your classroom or school. Here’s how:

  1. Ask parents and students to help organize the game jam. Explain that students and parents will be working together to make a creative board game.
  2. Allow students to choose the area of focus. This topic could be a current area(s) of study in social studies, math, language arts, or science. It could also be a pressing social topic such as environmental science or homelessness in their communities.
  3. Collect poster board, markers, recyclable materials, straightedges, pencils, game pieces for use on game jam day.
  4. Ask local businesses to donate food, drink, and supplies to keep your gamers fueled and focused.
  5. Suggested two-day board game jam formats:
    • Choose an existing game that expresses the area of focus. Have enough copies so everyone can play it. Organize into groups and modify (“mod”) that game. Allow time to playtest each other’s games. Give awards for “the most creative mod” or “the craziest mod”
    • Allow groups to choose any existing game. Modify (“mod”) that game to express the area of focus.
    • Groups can make their own original games. The rules must fit on one piece of paper. After 24 hours, groups rotate around and playtest each other’s games according to the rules supplied, with no explanation from the design team. Leave groups time to refine their concept based on feedback from playtesting.
  6. Capture photos and videos to post to the school website.
  7. Have kids share their games at a school board meeting.
  8. Continue to engage parents in playing and/or creating games as a home and school connection.

Have fun, and happy gaming!

Game Jams – Engaging Families

Game Jams – Engaging Families

By Beverly Vaillancourt


Photos by Norton Gusky / South Fayette Township Intermediate School Game Jam
February 20, 2014

A game jam is a game-building event where individuals come together to design and produce a game.

It starts with an idea – a spark of creativity.

It evolves into a stream of ideas – imagination.

It molds itself into reality on a computer screen or in a physical space – a something. Rules are added – parameters.

Practice is imposed – playtesting.

The end result? – a game.

But not just any game.  THE game. A game that kids “own.” A game that says, “We made this!” Game jams help kids experience the joy of creatively working with others. Game jams can happen in any community space and can be used to engage parents as partners in education.

The Michigan Department of Education has compiled a comprehensive, research-based fact sheet about the importance of parent involvement in education. A few highlights:

  • With parental involvement, grades, test scores, attendance, graduation rates increase while teen drug and alcohol use decrease;
  • Family participation is a far better predictor of student academic success than socioeconomic status;
  • Most students desire parental participation at some level;
  • Having parents at school reinforces the home-school connection in the minds of students;
  • School activities that promote parental involvement in schools drop significantly in the transition to middle school;
  • School-home partnerships “help all youngsters succeed in school and in later life.” (Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University)

Research compiled by Child Trends shows some interesting trends in parental involvement in schools. A high percentage of parents attend school general school meetings. Significantly, parental attendance at school events peaks at the upper elementary level. Parental involvement takes a sharp nosedive when it comes to volunteering at the school or serving on a committee. In 2012, only 42% of parents directly participated in their child’s school as a volunteer or committee member.

[source: http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=parental-involvement-in-schools]

[source: http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=parental-involvement-in-schools]

Things we know: Kids love game jams! Parental involvement in school is essential. Game jams can strengthen the connection between what kids are doing at school and the involvement of parents in their child’s education, especially as kids move into middle school and the upper grades.

Here’s why:

According to the Entertainment Software Association

  • 58% of Americans play video games
  • 59% of parents feel games encourage family time
  • 16% of gamers play video games with their parents
  • 32% of gamers play with other members of their family

Board games are growing in popularity, especially German family games like Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, and the ever-popular Ticket to Ride. Though many traditional board games are available online, tabletop games continue to be a favorite activity for many families.

In game jams, kids lead the learning. Their creativity is unleashed. Parents don’t just observe, but they actively take part in communicating, sharing ideas, and developing a product. Parents become involved, not as observers but as participants.

Photos by Norton Gusky / South Fayette Township Intermediate School Game Jam February 20, 2014

Photos by Norton Gusky / South Fayette Township Intermediate School Game Jam
February 20, 2014

It works and it’s fun. Importantly, it helps to educate parents that school is not just a compilation of fact memorization, but far more. Education includes critical thinking, consideration of ideas, flexibility, adaptability, collaboration, technology, and literacy at several levels—all leading to innovation and invention.

If we want parents and other stakeholders to think beyond the face of standards-based education and help them dive into the realm of deeper learning and 21st century skills, we need to provide vehicles for that understanding. Game jams do that and more. Let’s encourage game design and game play as a family affair. Let’s engage parents in organizing and participating in a game jam. Let’s help parents step back and act as guides and cheerleaders of creativity and productivity. Let’s change the definition of homework.

Game jams can serve as an exciting vehicle for parents to see the light bulbs of creativity illuminate a room.  Learning should be fun, for students and their parents. Putting the “fun” in learning just may be the secret to greater parental involvement in education, especially as kids move into the upper grades.

Give game jams a try.