Day in a Classroom: Making

west a game mod 2

Day in a Classroom: Making

Sarah Avery, Community Advocate, Educator

Back in January, with the semester drawing to a close, students were hard at work studying for finals, writing term papers, and finishing presentation projects.  Never had I seen students more excited to be doing these things than in Chris Lucas’s classroom at West Allegheny High School.  Mr. Lucas, a Zulama teacher, teaches Evolution of Games and Mobile Game Design to students from 9th to 12th grade.  When I first entered the the classroom, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  As a substitute, I’m used to students being standoff-ish around new people. I wasn’t expecting students to welcome me into their space and be so excited that I experience the games they were building.

In my visit, students were playtesting traditional games (like Chess and Nine Man Morris) they had modified.  Suddenly, pieces could move any number of spaces and a roll of the dice could determine just how lucky you really are. Everywhere I looked, students were collaborating, building, analyzing, and having fun.

An interesting game modification I found was in the game of Chess. The students decided that if a piece takes another piece, rather than just removing it from the board, you flip it over and that square becomes a blank space that no one can land on, so while you play, the board becomes more and more limited, raising the level of difficulty and strategy involved.  Another modification that caused much excitement took place in Nine Man Morris.  The students added a bit of chance to the game by offering the option to roll the dice in addition to traditional moves. However, whatever number you rolled, you must abide by the moves listed in the directions. For example, if you rolled a three, your opponent may take one of your pieces, but if you rolled a five, you revived one of your taken pieces. So, the students had to weigh the risks in addition to thinking strategically about their moves. This led to many loud outbursts of laughter as the hand of fate moved against the players.

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In the later class of Mobile Game Design, the students were much less animated because they were focused on finishing their term individual game design projects.  However, I did get to speak with them about their games.  Many of them were working on debugging their programs. One student had trouble losing lives once his character died.  Eventually, after discussing the issues with Mr. Lucas, the student decided to delete the character and rewrite the code. Though frustrated by his writing error, he admitted that he learned to be more observant and aware when programming. He noted that through his Zulama classes he has learned the skills perseverance, iteration, and resilience in order to solve issues. He has since then begun working with GameMaker, a more challenging game programming system.

Throughout my two hour visit I saw many things, but what everything boils down to is the essence of the Maker Movement. defines the Maker Movement as “a trend in which individuals or groups of individuals create and market products that are recreated and assembled using unused, discarded or broken electronic, plastic, silicon or virtually any raw material and/or product from a computer-related device.” While this is very long winded and technical, I prefer to define the Maker Movement as the spirit of collaboration on a project to create something that will solve a problem. Simply put, a maker is someone who makes.

From homes to community centers to schools to corporate America, the Maker Movement has grown in popularity.  At Zulama, we support the Maker Movement through our curriculum’s emphasis on project-based learning. Our teachers are riding that wave of technological creativity and ingenuity in the classroom with our students. Exploration and discovery are the best methods of education. Through game design and project based learning, we can utilize students’ natural curiosity to enhance their educational experiences by having them teach themselves, like the student who had to rewrite his code in order to fix his problem. In the past, teachers held the keys to knowledge, but through the Maker Movement and project based learning, everyone holds the keys and collaborates to learn.  Students are actively and creatively engaged in learning through dynamic and authentic experiences in order to investigate, collaborate, and innovate. Learning and creating memories is an active process and teachers who embrace the Maker Movement take full advantage of that by creating interactive projects and games designed to spark interest, enhance understanding, and create a sense of ownership for students’ education.


The Maker Movement and Education

The Maker Movement and Education

Sarah Avery, Community Advocate, Educator

Sarah AveryWe all remember the iconic scene in The Sandlot where the boys try desperately to retrieve their lost ball. First, they start with a primitive pole, graduating to a pole with a pot on the end; but, their ingenuity does not end there. They end up breaking out the big guns when Smalls gathers every piece of his erector set to build an advance ball-retrieving machine.  Needless to say, despite their scientific approaches, they fail, but in their failure they find new and improved ways to attain their goal: retrieving the lost Babe Ruth ball.

This scene shows the true spirit of the Maker Movement: people collaborating on a project to create something that will solve a problem. A maker, boiled down to the barest of terms, is someone who makes, just as a gardener is someone who gardens and a writer is someone who writes.  If you create, invent, build, or engineer, you are a maker.

We need our students to be makers. A healthy economy is built on entrepreneurs, inventors, and start ups, and in recent years we have seen a resurgence of makers. Kickstarters, Esty, Pinterest are just a few websites that allow people to show off their creations. Pinterest, in particular, is famous for its expansive database of DIY projects. Though Pinterest is generally an adult social media outlet, our greatest makers are often students.  People under the age of 18 have less responsibilities and more curiosity, leading to free time devoted to inventing and discovering. One example of a young maker is Joey Huddy, 16 year old electrical engineering prodigy.  At the age of 12, he wowed President Obama with his marshmallow gun at the National Science fair.  Currently, he is finishing high school, applying for colleges, all while being the youngest Intel employee ever.  That is quite an accomplishment for the young man whose personal mantra is “Don’t be bored, make something.”  Thanks to Joey and millions of other makers in the US, in February 2014, the White House announced the first White House Maker Faire in the article, “Announcing the First White House Maker Faire” by Tom Kalil and Jason Miller.  On June 18th 2014, the White House held the Makers Faire designed to celebrate the return of ingenuity and creativity in the US. You

With the expansion of technology, the Maker Movement has taken off, like the industrial revolution of technology.  We need to ride that wave in our classrooms.  Exploration and discovery are the best methods of education. Through game design and project based learning, we can utilize students’ natural curiosity to enhance their educational experiences by essentially having them teach themselves while teachers facilitate.  In the past, teachers held the keys to knowledge, but through the Maker Movement and project based learning, everyone holds the keys and collaborates to learn.  Students are no longer sponges, passively soaking up information.  Learning and creating memories is an active process and we can take advantage of that by creating interactive projects and games designed to spark interest, enhance understanding, and create a sense of ownership for students’ education.

My most vivid memories from high school and middle school were when I was creating, researching, building, designing, and collaborating.  It instilled a sense of pride and accomplishment in my education.  That’s what we want to give to our students: a community built on educational pride and ownership.

In The Sandlot, the boys create a bond that lasts a lifetime. Through the challenges they face, their resourcefulness shines, giving the audience a clear image of what it means to be a maker: someone a part of a community that works together toward a common goal through discovery, inventiveness, and perseverance.


Core Content and the Power of Play

Core Content and the Power of Play

By Norton Gusky, Educational Technology Broker for NLG Consulting

There’s a growing interest in not only using games to motivate and engage students, but to use the elements of game-based learning to make learning more empowering and personal for students. Often games are thought more for younger students. However, teachers at all levels and in a variety of subject areas are discovering the power of play in their classrooms.

David Dulberger, an elementary teacher at the Emma Doub Elementary School in Hagerstown, Maryland, Michelle King and Nick Kaczmarek, middle school cultural literacy teachers at the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh, and Daniel Harrold, a high school English/Language Arts teacher in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, have all deployed a variety of strategies using games in their classrooms. Key to each teacher is the ability to use the game-based learning elements to make learning more engaging. This includes strategies such as: rewarding success using badges, leveling of tasks, personalizing learning, and becoming a maker or creator.


1David shared and demonstrated via a Google Hangout many of the tools and strategies he deploys. One of the keys to engaging his fifth grade students is the use of “badging” through My Big Campus, a learning management system from Lightspeed. David designs badges based on the academic skills he wants his students to display. For instance, this past year he created an Environmental Researcher badge. The students received the badge if they demonstrated their ability to address a Focus (Driving) Question. In addition to David’s work with his students, his principal has also discovered that badging can be a motivator for the professional staff to demonstrate teaching skills.

Da2niel Harrold works with high school students. He has created a game “Escapades through British Literature” where students received badges to demonstrate the mastery of skills and concepts relating to English beyond the standard, required curriculum. According to Daniel, “These badges are not only rewarding in themselves but also lead to higher grades (students need at least one of three possible badges per quarter to earn an “A”) but also to “level-up” (acquiring 3, 6, or 8 badges grants the student new powers in the game). Badges allow students to personalize their learning experience.”

Leveling of Tasks

Not all students start at the same place or move at the same speed through a game. It’s important to have an entry level where all students have success and then increase the complexity of the tasks to keep challenging the learner. In Daniel Harrold’s English class students are not simply students completing academic tasks, they are time travelers on a QUEST through British Literature History. Daniel explained, “Each unit, or QUEST follows a similar pattern: Questions, Understanding, Explore, Synthesis, and Test. The Questions are the overall learning goals for the unit. Students must ultimately demonstrate mastery of these concepts to advance to the next level. To accomplish this, students travel through four types of assignments. The first, Understanding, is the background knowledge level. This is where I will deliver direct instruction via video, text, or online content. This is most similar to the “tutorial” level of a game. In the Explore stage, students read the text and interact with it, via discussion boards, class conversation, small group work, or any other option they see fit. This is similar to the “exploration” level of a game in which the player must find a dungeon, or seek out clues. In the Synthesis stage, players created a project-based assessment piece, which ties all the information together, similar to how gamers will defeat a dungeon using new skills or weapons. The final stage, Test, is the boss battle in which students must complete the paper or essay only. In all assignments, students are graded on a mastery scale. If they score 85% or higher and receive full XP, but if they don’t, they must improve their work until they hit the mark. Students who exceed expectations can be awarded with “gems” or a bonus XP.”


David takes a slightly different strategy. He uses several tools that allow for adaptive practices by his students. FrontRow is one application that allows David to see student performance and then group students based on their performance solving complex math problems. The students compete to earn “coins” and see their status on a Leaderboard.


Another tool that David uses to level instruction is ScootPad. Again students receive rewards for activities that are linked to math, reading, or vocabulary standards.

Personalized Learning

There are a variety of definitions for personalizing learning. I’ll use the approach recommended by Kathleen McClaskey and Barbara Bray ( They see personalized learning as a strategy that empowers the learner to make choices based on their interests, strengths, and weaknesses. The key is the fact that each learner is part of the instructional process. It’s not just the teacher making the instructional learning path decision. That would be an individualized learning approach. The same is true for differentiating instruction. While both individualized learning and differentiating have personal elements, they do not give the learner the control for their learning.

David shares the responsibility for the learning with his students. Games provide opportunities for individual pathways. Students have ownership of their learning through “BigCampus.”

5Using BigCampus students now have a place to see their achievements (badges), develop a social network of “Followers” and other students who “Follow” them, and can post information to a Wall. It’s really a private Facebook environment that is now shared with a learning community.


Daniel Harrold sees gaming in his classroom as a tool towards “autonomy.” I see his definition of autonomy as personalized learning. According to Daniel, “The biggest advantage and goal of Gamification is the pursuit of autonomy. If Gamification is simply used as a behaviorist model on steroids, it risks actually making students less self-regulated, and more dependent on external rewards. The design is key in order to give students flexibility and differentiation so they may mold their own learning experiences, and play the game not only to “win”, or “finish” or “earn an ‘A’” but to gain more autonomy.”

Michelle King and Nick Kaczmarek use game-based learning to empower their sixth grade students. They work in teams of two where the students become colonists or civilization builders. Like Daniel Harrold, Michelle and Nick’s students shape their own experiences by the choices they make in the “Big Game” – the analog game that the students create to address an Essential Question about history, geography, or economics. By giving the students autonomy, the students own their learning. They discover resources, engage in research, and reflect on the implications of their choices.


Unlike Daniel Harrold and David Dulberger Michelle and Nick’s students develop the structure and rules for their academic “Big Game.” New mechanics occur as the game progresses based on student choices. For instance in one game “growing crops was not part of the original game” Nick explained. After the game progressed students felt that new features should be added. As part of the structure of the game students developed their own scoring system. Michelle added, “They created an algorithm for what constituted ‘happiness’ for their cultural group.”


The teachers I approached use a variety of game-based learning strategies to engage and empower their students. In each case the students play a key role in the game. The students make personal choices and are rewarded for their risk-taking. They sometimes may lose, since games by their nature have winners and losers. However, unlike a traditional classroom the students see “losing” as a strategy for getting better or defeating an opponent at another level. In the end all the students are winners. They have evidence – badges or their own learning – that they mastered something. Students in all three classrooms whether an elementary, middle, and high school level, are engaged and actively involved in learning content, dispositions, and processes that will make them successful life-long learners.

The Power of PBL

The Power of PBL

Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed

Educator, Instructional Designer

Bev_compressedI worked with high-risk high school students for several years in a special high school completion program. The kids came to me as seniors with barely a high school credit to their name. Most were chronic truants. Some were dropouts we connected with and brought back into the system. The goal was to get those young adults out into the working world, have them pass the five GED tests, civics, and health, and graduate them with their class. And they did! I had the privilege of being the teacher of 130 students over seven years who became high school graduates as a result of the program.

Many of the kids simply did not like each other. Though we were in an off-campus setting, old feuds from the high school setting prevailed. Once given the opportunity to succeed, their motivation to finish school was actually not a problem. Getting beyond their dislike for each other was an obvious barrier right from the start. Each year I found a community service project to start our school year as the first of several projects we worked on together. It forced the students to work together and gave them a purpose; at least that’s how I thought of it then. Looking back, I now realize the students were immersed in 21st Century Skills. The “project” took a disconnected group of students and gave them a purpose on which to focus their energy and passion.

One year the group built a play station for a local daycare. The large play station came in several parts, with lots of screws and bolts. It was “some assembly required” to the max! The guys saw it as a guy project. They could lift the heavy pieces into place, and right in their cars, every one of their cars, was a set of tools waiting to be used. They instantly took on individual roles, some pulling pieces into place, others driving bolts where needed. They forgot they were supposed to be at odds with each other because the intrinsic joy of building and the showing their finely-tuned building skills overcame any past disagreements. It was poetry in motion.

What about the girls? The guys dismissed them as unnecessary and let them know it, not only in what they said, but very definitely in how they behaved. At least they did until one of the girls picked up a screwdriver and started securing a timber, demonstrating obvious skill. Time stopped at that moment for the guys. Another girl picked up the printed directions and started reading the directions aloud, step by step. A third helped organize the sequence of the assembly. By early afternoon, the play station was built and the kids looked at what they had constructed with pride.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the project can be best described within a social context. A dramatic and long-lasting change came over the group as the play station project progressed. They recognized and respected individual skills and shared a common purpose. Collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, voice and choice, and the creation of a product – all enhanced 21st Century skills ruled the day. And every day they could drive by the day care center and say, “I built that.” Their product was a public good. It was shared with the community in the local newspaper, and their image in the community became positive.

idea team finalThe power of project based learning is truly unlimited, not only in building important personal skills, but also in helping students learn how to function in the real world. Project based learning is a keystone of Zulama’s courses. Project based learning is not one person working on a project, but a group of engaged individuals sharing talents though collaboration. Everyone brings his or her unique qualities to the project.

Zulama students work in small groups to innovate, design, engage others, and assess in the form of ongoing iteration. Zulama calls these small group and group process IDEA Teams. Teamwork builds self-reliance, self-confidence, accountability, and most importantly, responsibility. In the first Evolution of Games IDEA Team project, students create the game board for the ancient game of Ur that originated in Mesopotamia. Students take a deep dive into the history and culture of this ancient time and place and then translate their knowledge onto a game board. Who does the research? Who creates the art? Who constructs the game board? Who presents it? When does the group meet and what are they responsible for sharing?

Royal Game Of Ur Game Board

Royal Game Of Ur Game Board

This early project sets the social context in which the class functions. Just as with my play station-building students, IDEA Teams find purpose and pride in what they accomplish, not because a teacher has told them what needs to be done and how, but because they determine their set of expectations and strive to meet them.

It’s exciting to read about the energized project based learning environments in the Danville, Kentucky school district and at High Tech High in Philadelphia. It’s equally exciting to walk into Zulama classes and see the social engagement and cognitive investment when students are immersed in game design and project based learning. Research supporting project based learning is compelling. I saw the benefits of project based learning play out for 130 young adults who walked with great pride at graduation. Class projects became defining moments in their education and had a dramatic and positive influence on their futures.



Making Games Equals Learning with Zulama!

Educational Value from Making “Stuff”

American RadioWorks has conducted a great interview of Sylvia Libow Martinez, Co-Author of “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.”

Many educators say the best way to learn is by combining what you learn in school with real-world practice and that making something yourself or with peers is its own reward.

Sylvia discusses how standardized testing has narrowed the focus in today’s classrooms. She says that many of the engineers and game designers she has worked with were “bad at school”. Yet they are incredibly creative and inventive people.

Sylvia’s Top 3 Classroom Game-Changers:

  • 3D Printing
  • Robotics and Fabrication
  • Programming

These tools all focus on “making”, while also incorporating computing. The use of computers can help students iterate and gain practice using the same technology they will find in the workforce. Any time you can make the learning experience more authentic, for example, by bring real scientists’ tools into the classroom, students better understand the connection between school and the “real world.”

The podcast: Invent to Learn

Zulama: Making Games in the Classroom

Making and making games are real-world activities that are at the core of every Zulama course. We’re already on this!!

Examples of work students have made in their Zulama courses:

Students work on their "barnyard" game.

Students work on their “barnyard” game.

Students work on their project in Zulama's Game Design Studio course.

Students work on their project in Zulama’s Game Design Studio course.