Five Ways to Make the Most of Computer Science PD

By: Rachel Hegarty, Zulama Support Guru

So you’ve just signed up for a computer science professional development course for this summer (or you’re about to)! As our students know, a new learning experience can be both exciting and a little nerve-wracking. Here are five ways you can make the most of your PD:

1. Don’t be afraid to jump in and mess around.

Playing with a new technology is often the best way to learn it and GameMaker has some great tutorials. Consider your five-year-old and how quickly she figured out your smartphone!

Games and learning computer science

2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

In the Zulama and CSTA Computer Science and Game Design PD course, the Support button is your friend, as is our customer service crew. If we don’t have the answer for you ourselves, we’ll work hard and quickly to find it out. But first, ASK. If your PD doesn’t provide customer service, ask another teacher or check for forums. Inquiry is part of learning, after all, and that’s what we’re all in the business of doing.

3. Don’t be afraid to fail.

Really. Please. A failed game build or line of code is just an iteration, and iterative development is the way to design anything. Failure is good. Failure teaches.

Computer Science Teacher Professional Development

4. Don’t be afraid to play.

Building games can be an exciting avenue into CS. And if you build games, you should definitely play games. Ask your students what games they’re playing and try them out. You’ll better understand where you can go with CS and ways you can teach CS principles if you can speak your students’ language.

5. Don’t be afraid to dream.

As you work through your course, think about things you could do in your classroom to reinforce and explore CS principles. What can gaming and coding do for you? What can it do for your students?


Haven’t signed up for a CS PD program yet for this summer? Check out the Computer Science and Game Design course, co-designed by the CSTA and Zulama! You’ll learn game design and programming skills, earning a Computer Science and Game Design Certificate.

Sign up for our Computer Science & Game Design PD here!

Redefining Play

Redefining Play

By Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed

Educator, Instructional Designer

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.”

Joseph Chilton Pearce

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting two Zulama classes at West Allegheny High School in Imperial, Pennsylvania. Here students are learning about the evolution of games and learning how to create games for mobile devices. Teacher Chris Lucas challenges and encourages his students in ways that remind me of how a really good coach inspires a team to win. His students are engaged from the moment they enter the classroom until it is time to leave. They work in tandem to share information and deepen their learning within a comfortable and inspiring learning space where innovation and creative design are encouraged and valued. In Chris’s classrooms learning is a “happening” driven by design thinking. All in all, I had a delightful classroom visit and it got me thinking…

photo 2 (3)What if we view the classroom experience similar to the way we view the play experience that takes place in design thinking? What if standards-based education and the hard work of learning mimicked what happens within the social context of play? People are fully engaged and focused during play. They readily take on challenges, solve problems, innovate, and improve in their skills, as mistakes become opportunities to discover strategies for success. In play, perseverance is rewarded. What if kids viewed school in the same way they view play?

We know that when playing games individuals feel a sense of optimism and take on challenges with a renewed belief in their ability to problem solve and succeed. We know failure is defined in games as a learning opportunity. We know that with games individuals are intrinsically motivated and deepen their communication, iteration, and collaboration skills through the play experience. With games social skills are built and the bonds of friendship are strengthened as individuals share common goals and work to accomplish them. With games individuals become accountable and responsible for their actions.

Design thinking is dynamic. It sparks rainbows of creativity with limitless horizons. Design thinking is ingenuity in motion. Design thinking is play. Can teachers who are accountable to the standards be convinced to welcome their students to a day of play? Can they be assured that play will deepen content knowledge, ensure positive classroom management, and build 21st century learning? They can. It all starts with design thinking and moves toward an environment that champions game-based and project based learning.

Let’s use the Civil War as an example. State standards require that students recognize the causes of the Civil War, identify significant battles, recall important dates, explain the heroics of generals, and analyze the impact the Civil War left on history. Teachers are responsible for making sure their students master the standards. There’s no time for play, or is there? Can design thinking and game play create a need to know and a mastery of the standards?

IMG_0218Good morning, class. Today we begin our three-week study of the Civil War. You will have a lot of work to do as you explore its causes, what happened during its four long years of battle, and the impact it had on the people, on the country’s economy, and on history. We will need to create six board games on the Civil War, play and evaluate the accuracy of information found in a video game on the Civil War, and complete a media project that will require you to present what you have learned to others.

So, let’s get started. As before, class lectures will be available online for you view at home or during your study hour. During your class time here, you will design six games that address the standards found in your Civil War information packet. Each team is required to design a game that explains its assigned topic. This will require historical research. Each of you will have the opportunity to play test all of the games. Each of you will then write an essay question that is answered by one of the games. Selected questions will be used as part of your Civil War end of unit exam.  

Following successful playtesting, the class will be divided into three teams. Each team will explore how the Civil War affected the region in which we live. We will pool that information to assemble a creative media presentation. We will present your games and the class media presentation to the county historical society. They look forward to sharing the games you will design and your media presentation on its website and in their educational outreach with middle schools. Now, what do we need to do first? …

Game-based learning brings the hard work of play into the classroom, and with it, learning is not a chore, but an enjoyable challenge filled with optimism for success, problem solving, a set of goals and established pathways (rules) to meet those goals, and willing students who take a deep dive into content. Redefining play as an integral part of the classroom experience transforms the learning process from one of textbook drudgery to creative investigation. Learning has a purpose, a need to know beyond doing well on a test. Students and teachers become partners in learning as they explore content, apply knowledge, and enjoy sharing their discoveries. And, with it, learning becomes a enjoyable journey.


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.



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.