Tag Archives: computer science

What’s it take to teach technological fluency to digital natives?

For nearly 30 years, Stehlik has been a computer science (CS) professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU); he was also Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education for over 20 years, and is now Assistant Dean for Outreach. In 1984, when personal computers were a fresh innovation, he helped train the first cohort of Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science teachers. In the digital age of ubiquitous smartphones, Stehlik continues his central role in computer science education.

Gregarious and voluble, Stehlik’s enthusiasm for CS is quickly apparent and highly contagious. Remake Learning spoke to him about spreading the gospel of computer science.

Whether you become a software engineer is less important than understanding the technological milieu in which we live.

What does the Assistant Dean for Outreach do?

While Carnegie Mellon has had tremendous success over the last 15 years with the female demographic—we went from 10% of a class being female to now almost 50%—we have not had as much success with other populations. Part of the outreach job is trying to figure out how to get more underrepresented students into the pipeline—to make the pipeline bigger. That is very much connected to where students learn about professions. Typically, that’s in high school, and high school computer science has not been in the best shape. So we think about how Carnegie Mellon can help in this space.

What should students know by the time they graduate high school? And what can they gain from early exposure to CS, even if they don’t pursue a CS degree?

They should know how to think. A lot of computer science is about problem-solving and figuring out how to implement the solution in a constrained programming language, which is an exercise in moving between layers of abstraction. It’s also incredibly creative, because you and I can come up with different solutions. We can argue about efficiency, or elegance, or clarity, so you start looking at layers of problem-solving—not just what answer is correct, but which is better.

We also know that technology is driving forward the US economy. Whether you become a software engineer is less important than understanding the technological milieu in which we live. What does it mean that elections can be hacked? When we talk about autonomous vehicles, at some point you need to decide how it responds to an unavoidable accident: what do you prioritize, what do you evaluate first? Some developer is going to have to implement this, but some non-developer should be thinking about the ethical implications.

I would also say everybody needs to be able to write a little bit of code, because everything exists in that space now. It’s important to be technically savvy in a tech-oriented world, and this generation is going to need to understand that space incredibly well.

You’re currently working with the South Fayette school district to improve their high school CS program, and teaching an AP course there. How do you get younger students excited about computing?

One of the interesting things in South Fayette is they have a wonderful K-8 computational thinking program. But if you took the kids who came through this program—exploring with Arduinos and robots, Scratch and Snap!—and you dropped them into the current 9th grade Java class, they would look at you like you had three heads.

You want to show the breadth of computer science as being way more than programming. I can envision a curriculum that lays the foundations in the 9th year with a bunch of different electives: robotics, machine learning. But you need wonderful programs in K-8, and then you need to look at what you’re doing in the high school and make sure you’re ready to engage these kids when they get there. The Remake Learning initiative is a perfect example: you’re thinking about how you can engage people in this technology now.

Do you notice a gender gap in either enrollment or performance in the K-12 classes? If so, what are your thoughts on how to narrow it?

In my AP class, there’s definitely a skew. But I think if you show things to kids in elementary school, before they’ve really figured out what they want to be, we’ll find a lot more people attaching to computing. I don’t think use of iPhones skews male or female, so why should thinking more deeply about that technology?

And people attach to technology in different ways. Some kids like to play with robots, some don’t; some kids like to play with graphical things, some don’t. The more varied the contexts you embed the technology in, the more likely you’ll be to not see those striations. Indeed, this is why it’s a fundamental access issue—it’s keeping the keys to the kingdom locked up that I think drives some of those gaps.

You spent two and a half years working at CMU’s Qatar campus. Qatar is highly ranked in average years of schooling, life expectancy and quality of life. But it’s also a monarchy ruled by Sharia Law. With programming, people can build their idea and share it widely with nothing more than a computer, which feels very democratic. Do you think computer science has a role to play in advancing equality in the world?

Oh yes, absolutely. It goes back to what we were just talking about: when you present these tools more widely, the equity and democratization issue comes as a matter of course.

For many women in that part of the world, being exposed to higher education and computing is a fundamental alteration of the expected career path. It’s no longer that you can only stay home and be married, you now have this other opportunity. My sense is that a lot of the Qatari females will have fundamentally different conversations with their daughters than they are having right now with their mothers.

Researching your work as an educator, it’s clear you are a deeply beloved professor who inspires students and colleagues alike. You have both a scholarship and a fellowship named after you, and at least two students have even asked you to participate in their weddings. What’s been your central philosophy as an educator?

Dave Kosbie, who’s a very good friend and colleague of mine, put it more succinctly than I think I ever could. As he tells it, the three rules are:

  1. Students come first
  2. If you want people to work hard, you have to work harder
  3. Attend to the whole student, not just their mind

Photo courtesy Aileen OwensI have a couple of my own on my website, and you can pick whichever subset of those you like.

People say ‘do what you love.’ I believe I’m one of the few that gets to do that. And if you love what you do, I think you owe it to everybody you come into contact with to be enthusiastic about it, and in some sense, to be an evangelist for it indirectly. I don’t have to tell people computer science is cool—what I should be doing is showing them it’s cool by how cool I think it is.


You can see Mark Stehlik’s TEDx talk, “What is your fractal dimension?,” at Qatar’s Education City, here.

New Law Supports Computer Science Education in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, thanks to a law passed last summer, computer science coursework in all public and charter high schools can count toward either math or science graduation requirements.

The state joins 19 others with similar policies, according to the Education Commission of the States. Several other states also allow computer science (CS) credit to count as math or science but without a law mandating it.

Code.org notes that the number of states counting CS toward math or science requirements has nearly tripled since 2013. In large part these policies are responding to a rapidly changing workforce—and young people’s lack of preparation for it.

Computer science and information technology jobs are expected to grow , even outpacing similar scientific and technical industries as a whole. Pennsylvania currently has approximately 17,000 unfilled computer science and software development job openings, notes the Pennsylvania Department of Education in its guidelines for implementing the new law. But in 2014, the state had just 2,820 CS graduates. Only one in five were women. Many times, these jobs go unfilled because students lack the requisite skills.

“We need to make sure our [students’] skill sets are aligned with workforce demand,” Linda Topoleski, vice president of Workforce Programs and Operations at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, told Remake Learning last fall.

There are 17,000 unfilled computer science and software jobs in Pennsylvania.

There are many reasons students are not prepared for these positions. The legislators who wrote the new Pennsylvania policy believe that one reason is CS courses are not valued in schools. Many students have historically declined to take advanced placement computer science, for example, because it was counted only as an elective despite the heavy math and science content.

Yet it is important that public schools offer CS courses because they are the most accessible venues for many. Both people of color and women are under-represented in the tech and STEM workforces, and access to CS education early on can create a stronger pipeline for those groups.

Despite growth in the overall black and Latino college-going population (a 240 percent increase for Hispanics and 72 percent for blacks, between 1996 to 2012), their representation in the computing workforce has remained fairly stagnant, at 14 percent, according to Change the Equation. And at top high-paying companies, the portion of black and Latino employees is even lower. In 2016 blacks made up 2 percent of Google’s U.S. workforce, and Latinos 3 percent. Female representation in the overall field has also remained unchanged and disproportionately low at 26 percent.

Representation of black, Latino, and female tech workers remains stagnantly low.

For many students of all demographics, all the access and encouragement in the world would still not make them inclined to pursue a CS job. But many educators and technologists believe all learners can benefit from coursework in the field, which can build problem-solving skills and allow for creative expression.

Take coding—“not just a set of technical skills,” according to MIT computer scientist Mitch Resnick, who developed the programming language Scratch for children. “It’s similar to learning to write—a way for kids to organize, express, and share ideas.”

The Obama administration promoted computer science education for all students, saying the interdisciplinary, applied subject “allows students to engage in hands-on, real-world interaction with key math, science, and engineering principles.”

Laws like Pennsylvania’s help improve students’ exposure to CS. But the policy only addresses schools that already provide that coursework. According to Change the Equation, the disparities in access to these classes start early: only approximately one-half of all black and Latino students attend schools with CS classes. Efforts like Pennsylvania’s are steps forward in the longer road to addressing the root causes of these gaps.

Teaching Kids to Think Like Computer Scientists, Without Using Computers

Teaching computer science is important for many reasons. Advocates say it’s a vital piece of preparing educated citizens of the 21st century and of meeting the demand for jobs in the new economy.

MIT Media Lab’s Mitch Resnick, the mastermind behind the popular kids coding language Scratch, says that coding teaches mathematical and computational thinking in addition to problem solving, design, and communication skills. And author Douglas Rushkoff, in his book “Program or Be Programmed,” argued that coding is the new literacy of the digital age. Just like we learned to write when we learned to read, he argued, humans should learn not only how to use computers but how to program them.

Folks like Resnick and Rushkoff say the coding itself and the skills one gains along the way are valuable for all citizens of future society, not only those who will become computer scientists.

These days, after all, the hardware and software are changing rapidly. Who knows what will be around when my 8-year-old enters the workforce? How should we prepare him? A group in Australia may have found one way.

Over at the Hechinger Report, Annie Murphy Paul profiled a project called Computer Science Unplugged, which uses games, puzzles, and magic tricks to teach concepts of computer science to kids as young as age 5.

“Rather than talking about chips and disks and ROM and RAM,” the organizers wrote, “we want to convey a feeling for the real building blocks of computer science: how to represent information in a computer, how to make computers do things with information, how to make them work efficiently and reliably, how to make them so that people can use them.”

For example:

“Younger children might learn about ‘finite state automata’—sequential sets of choices—by following a pirates’ map, dashing around a playground in search of the fastest route to Treasure Island. Older kids can learn how computers compress text to save storage space by taking it upon themselves to compress the text of a book.”

We’ve done similar work here in Pittsburgh with our Remake Learning Digital Corps, which brings technologists into the community to teach digital literacy skills to kids. The workshop leaders often start with games to get kids to understand computer science concepts before turning to the computers themselves. Ani Martinez, who leads the program for the Sprout Fund said that participants often play “Harold the Robot,” an activity also used by Computer Science Unplugged. In the game, students give instructions to one of their peers pretending to be a robot. They get to see how well the robot is able to follow their instructions and how their instructions are taken literally.

At Elizabeth Forward Middle School, students get to use their bodies and new technology to act out concepts of math and science and to play games at the school’s SMALLab. The Wii-like space uses a ceiling-mounted projector, motion-sensor cameras, and a computer to create a kinesthetic learning environment where kids can learn physics and learn about human computer interaction.

You may also remember the board game Robot Turtles, which made a splash on Kickstarter when it came out in 2013. The game teaches programming fundamentals to kids ages 3 to 8 without using a computer. It’s designed by a software engineer who’s a father and believes teaching his kids “to program a computer is the single greatest superpower I can give them.”

Engineers hope that these kinds of teaching methods will help overcome barriers to teaching and learning computer science: the hardware for one, but also stereotypes that computer science is, as Annie Murphy Paul wrote, boring or geeky or not for girls.

“The biggest challenges for the future,” wrote Resnick in a 2013 article at EdSurge, “are not technological but cultural and educational. Ultimately, what is needed is a shift in mindsets, so that people begin to see coding not only as a pathway to good jobs, but as a new form of expression and a new context for learning.”

Computer Science Unplugged is available for free download at csunplugged.org.

Teens and Social Media? “It’s Complicated”

A Nielsen study released last month found 40 percent of young adults use social media in the bathroom. A little odd, perhaps. But when you look at how truly tuned in teens are to social media, is it really that surprising?

It’s not just teens’ attachment to technology that can make adults scratch their heads. There’s a deeper fear—that kids will lose their ability to socialize face-to-face, that they’ll be bullied, or lured by strangers into dangerous situations, or that they’re sexting or… the list of dangers goes on.

danah boyd, for one, thinks those fears are misplaced. And more deeply, the author of the new book, “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” argues that we’re scapegoating digital media for bigger problems—like an overtly sexual society and overly scheduled childhoods.

boyd, who’s a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, spent eight years interviewing hundreds of teens and studying the nuanced ways they use social media. Her findings challenge the gloom-and-doom narratives we’ve all heard before. While still acknowledging the internet’s boundaries and shortcomings, she brings to light the potential of new media to empower teens.

In the book’s opening chapter, boyd makes an important clarification. Teens aren’t actually obsessed with Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Rather, as she told fellow tech expert Clive Thompson at Wired, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other.”

“Most teens are not compelled by gadgetry as such—they are compelled by friendship,” boyd writes. “The gadgets are interesting to them primarily as a means to a social end. Furthermore, social interactions may be a distraction from school, but they are often not a distraction from learning. Keeping this basic social dynamic firmly in view makes networked teens suddenly much less worrisome and strange.”

“Educators have an important role to play in helping youth navigate networked publics and the information-rich environments that the internet supports.”

-danah boyd

Teens today want what teens since the stone age have wanted—a place to be themselves and hang out without adults hovering over them. But boyd describes how the last few decades have seen a mix of anti-loitering laws, enforced curfews, a decreasing number of public places, and growing safety worries from parents. Pair all that with the ever-increasing pressure to get into college, and teens have less time than ever to hang out face-to-face, which, boyd claims, is one reason their online lives mean so much to them.

But what teens see and what adults see are often two different things. Parents and teachers, she says, are too quick to blame social media and online worlds as the root cause of the problem. As she sees it, the real problem is bigger. To wit: sexting. We blame digital media for the flood of sexually explicit photos pinging back and forth via texts and Snapchat, but we should really be blaming the conflicting messages society sends about sex—from the Kardashians and twerking to abstinence and virginity pledges.

boyd also thinks that teachers should be more open to interacting with students on social media. She told Emily Bazelon on Slate:

“The moves educators have made away from using social media to talk to kids have been really destructive. Educators should have open-door policies for kids to reach out to them online. A teacher should create a profile that is herself or himself as a teacher, on Facebook or wherever your cohort of kids are. Never go and friend a student on your own, but if a student friends you, accept. And if a student reaches out to you online, respond. If you see something concerning about a student on a social media account, approach him or her in school. Give your password to the principal, so it’s all transparent, and then be present. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of teachers say they shouldn’t talk to kids outside the classroom. You can’t be 24/7, but when that connection is possible, it should be encouraged. And social media is an opportunity for more informal interactions.”

(That one lit up the comments, for a lot of reasons.)

Educators, and adults in general, play another role, boyd says—as online sherpas for teens:

“Educators have an important role to play in helping youth navigate networked publics and the information-rich environments that the internet supports,” boyd writes. “Although youth are always learning as they navigate these systems, adults—including parents, educators, and librarians—can support them further by helping turn their experience into knowledge.”

In the end, the advice boyd sends to parents, educators, and others concerned with technology is “keep calm and carry on”: nix the anxiety and embrace the possibility. “With technology, there is such a tendency for it to be a source of anxiety,” she told Bazelon. “I’d really like us to be in a place where we think of it instead as an opportunity for teenagers.”


Photo/ Personal Democracy

Robust Digital Environments for Every Student

There’s a huge, exciting event kicking off this week, and no, it’s not the Olympics. Digital Learning Day is February 5, designed to inspire educators to integrate digital learning into their classrooms and libraries throughout the school year.

Over 1,300 events, ranging from Skype sessions with French pen pals to QR code scavenger hunts, are planned throughout the day from Alaska to Maine. Plus, to help teachers kick-start tech-filled activities, the Alliance for Excellent Education (which sponsors DLD) is providing a bevy of amazing lesson plans, toolkits, and instructional strategies. The resources go way beyond PowerPoints by delving into concepts such as how social media can inspire social change or how computer programs written with Scratch can beat humans at strategy games.

Digital Learning Day has roots in our region—inspiration for the campaign started with the idea of a paperless day at Mountainview Elementary in Morgantown, West Virginia.

“The idea behind No Paper No Pencil Day was to encourage teachers. I wanted them to build confidence in the use of technology,” says Karen Collins, principal of Mountainview Elementary, in an Alliance for Excellent Education video about the origins of Digital Learning Day. While the day has grown to a national scale, its goals remain similar. The day aims to promote meaningful technology use in schools and support teachers with high-quality resources.

Of course, only one day of digital learning isn’t enough to prepare kids for a world that’s basically dependent on technology. As Digital Learning Day organizers note on their website, the event “is about giving every child the opportunity to learn in a robust digital environment every day, with the goal of success in college and a career.”

Pittsburgh’s learning ecosystem is making this happen. Students in our region are tinkering, building robots, and filling their summers with hands-on learning. Technology is being woven into all children’s education, no matter where they live. I wrote last month about the challenges and opportunities that technology presents for rural schools. Not surprisingly, rural districts in our region are at the cutting edge.

Here’s a peek at a few of the cool things happening in and out of Pittsburgh in conjunction with Digital Learning Day:

  • After School Alliance, Edutopia, and the National Writing Project are teaming up to promote the #Make4DLDay challenge—a set of digital storytelling activities that let kids become and makers on Digital Learning Day. Teachers choose from three different “levels” of technology-created stories: a narrative-driven photo slideshow, a Prezi, or a stop-motion video. Then, students are encouraged to share their work on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or Instagram using the #Make4DLDay hashtag.

The challenge’s multimedia activities are designed to introduce kids to digital storytelling and encourage a shift from consuming media to actively making “digital artifacts.” By learning the first critical baby steps in digital storytelling, kids become equipped to tell any story they want later down the line—something we recently wrote about.

  • PAIMS Pennsylvania’s statewide “Find Your Inner da Vinci” event encourages student teams to invent something that will make the world a better place by solving a real-life problem. (The concept sounds a lot like the design thinking process catching on in education.) The students will share their inventions with other students around the state through videoconferencing. Track their progress with the #PADLDay hashtag.
  • The Center for Creativity is hosting a digital learning symposium in its super-interactive transformED space. Through digital and video events, educators and students will learn about the different innovative ways technology is being used in Allegheny County’s 42 school districts.

The center is also hosting its own Live Digital Learning Streaming Event as part of the  statewide da Vinci program and is encouraging districts to put together small teams to find solutions to real-world problems. The center emphasizes that teachers don’t have to dive into anything new. Rather, they can work off what they’re already teaching to incorporate technology in a new way.

  • The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. is hosting myriad of live events and will serve as a “hub” for Digital Learning Day activities. Schools can hop online and join in on any part of the full day of speeches from policy makers and learning experts, live chats, live demonstrations, and interactive polls.
  • New Hope-Solebury High School near Philadelphia is just one of the schools whose journalism students will be joining in on a Google hangout debate with Vijay Ravindran, Chief Digital Officer of the Graham Holdings Company (formerly known as the Washington Post Company) about whether modern news outlets can keep up with social media when it comes to breaking news.

 Photo/ Brad Flickinger

‪For #HourOfCode, Young Programmers In Pittsburgh Teach Their Peers

In mid-December, more than 15 million students spent at least one hour learning about computer programming, according to the nonprofit code.org, which launched the Hour of Code this year as part of Computer Science Education Week. The event was designed to get more kids interested in computer science.

Here in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, known locally as SciTech, lept on the bandwagon, involving about 200 students—nearly half its student body.

The coding tutorials took place in the school cafeteria, where 80 novice coders were paired up and matched with a high school tutor, who guided them through beginning programming experiences. When the rookie coders finished their first piece of programming, they talked about code with representatives from Carnegie Mellon University and Google and played student-designed video games in a penny arcade. (Proceeds from the arcade went to Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts.)

SciTech has a 1-1 laptop program and wireless access throughout the building, so infrastructure issues were minimal. But prepping the people took lots of work. Computer science teacher Ann Gollapudi said she spent a week preparing her students to lead programming tutorials in which students used Scratch, a graphics-based programming language, to make interactive holiday cards.

Gollapudi’s colleague Kayla Schultz trained high schoolers to lead tutorials in Python and Java. The high school students practiced their lesson plans on each other and gave each other written feedback to refine their teaching. “Our guests were amazed by how organized our students were,” Gollapudi said. This is not the first time Pittsburgh students took the lead—see our post about what happens when young students share their expert technology skills.

The hard work didn’t stop at a single hour of code, either. In January, SciTech will host CodeDay Pittsburgh, a 24-hour hackathon led by nonprofit tech educators StudentRND. At CodeDay Pittsburgh, SciTech’s Hour of Code participants can take the next step toward learning how to put code to work designing apps, video games, and other cool projects.

SciTech Hour of Code organizers said student interest was high enough to suggest even longer-term effects. “Students were excited and fully engaged. I suspect the enrollment for our computer science classes will increase in the coming years,” as a result of the Hour of Code, predicted English teacher Juliette Hill.

That will be music to the ears of the organizers of Hour of Code, whose goals are to show today’s kids the joys and benefits of learning how computers work. While not everyone will become a programmer—not everyone who can tickle the ivories becomes a composer after all—coding will likely become a defining literacy going forward. Pittsburgh students are already ahead of the pack.

Photo / Mast Charter

Growing the Innovation Economy, One Young Technologist at a Time

There may be some light at the end of the great recession. At least that’s what urbanists like Bruce Katz think. Katz is one of the economists who’s been cheering on the revolutionary models he sees in cities across America, because as he sees it, the economy of the future rests on innovation:

Like all great revolutions, this one had been ignited by a spark. The Great Recession was and continues to be a shock to the American zeitgeist, a brutal wake-up call that revealed the failure of a growth model that exalted consumption over production, speculation over investment, and waste over sustainability. A new growth model and economic vision is emerging from this rubble, a next economy where we export more and waste less, innovation in what matters, produce and deploy more of what we invent, and build an economy that works for working families.

But how do we make this happen? How do we ensure that our cities are breeding grounds for young inventors? How do we make sure kids will grow up to want to lead us into a future economy—to think big, and move from consumption-based to production-based again?  And what will that look like?

Shimira Williams hit the nail on the head when she told me, “I want my kids to learn to be producers, not just consumers of technology. And I wanted to teach them how to build technology and use it to extend their own interests.”

Williams teaches at a home-based afterschool program called Tek Start on Pittsburgh’s east end. It’s not far from Google’s Pittsburgh outpost, but Williams says it can seem worlds away.

Many of her students are from low-income families, which have struggled a great deal since the economic downturn. They have limited access to technology, and some of her kids, she says, see computers as little more than places on go online to “watch PBS kids.”

“There is a gap in my community,” she says. “People would buy computers with their income tax refund, but didn’t even know how to use them. They didn’t know how to access websites or use the internet. I want to attack the issues early.”

“I want my kids to learn to be producers, not just consumers of technology. And I wanted to teach them how to build technology and use it to extend their own interests.”

And attack she does, helping students see technology as a tool to get information and to create.

Williams has been working with kids ages preschool to 13 since 2006 and in a early care center with young children before that. She grew up in this neighborhood and believes strongly in the power of technology to improve the economy in her community and to improve the lives of the students she works with.

She encourages people in the community to donate computers and sends the extras home with students. She devotes time after school for projects that allow students to experiment with the latest technology in a hands-on way—even if her limited budget means that happens on her own personal smartphone or iPad. At Tek Start students shoot and edit their own videos, take pictures, and design apps. She encourages time for tinkering, and figuring things out, so they can build skills. “I want them to ask, ‘What am I doing to produce new content?’ Being a producer builds self-esteem. Everyone feels better when they make something.” 

But Williams’ students need more than just access. They need help imagining what’s possible.

Often her students don’t know about the global innovations that are taking place right in their backyard. “I see kids using emoticons all the time, I tell them, “Do you realize those are born and bread at CMU on the east side?’ There is innovation right here.”

To rectify that, Williams took a group of students on a tour of Google Pittsburgh.

“I would love kids to know that working here is a possibility.” The tour, she said, took her months to schedule.

This year kids as young as kindergarten in her program have been interviewing local professionals and recording videos. Williams says she wants them to be able to imagine themselves as future scientists or engineers or developers. “Tech makes you feel good about yourself. It’s an economic engine. When you produce and build and create you’re most inclined to build and create and form a business. And that, for my community, is more important than anything.” So far they’ve interviewed a medical examiner, an app developer, and a traffic engineer.

“It’s a global society. We’re not just competing regionally, we’re competing globally. The kid in the other country is actually being a producer [of media] at the age of 4 when our kids are not producing anything ‘til the age of 24.”

Williams is creating her own innovation pipeline by showing her students what’s possible and then helping them find the tools and build the skills to make that vision a reality. Show kids the possibilities and how to make their dreams happen, and you’ll make sure Pittsburgh survives, and the nation continues to grow.

Why They Love to Learn

Our new occasional series highlights exceptional students who’ve fallen in love with learning and the unique opportunities in and around Pittsburgh that have triggered their passions. Last week we profiled 14-year-old Caroline Combemale, who in addition to being a full time student at Agora Cyber Charter School, also happens to be an award-winning chess player and YouTube developer. This week we talk with an 18-year-old game designer Allyssa Dangel. Here’s more:

Allyssa Dangel: ‘Lunch is no longer my favorite class’

In the spring of her sophomore year, Allyssa Dangel visited her counselor’s office with an issue in her schedule. She needed to add a class, one to replace the study hall she no longer felt she needed. The only option that struck her interest? A brand new course called “Gaming Through the Ages.”

The course turned out to be the unexpected catalyst for a 180-degree turn in Dangel’s high school experience. Part of Elizabeth Forward High School’s Entertainment Technology Academy, “Gaming Through the Ages” kick-started a sudden zeal for learning and a passion for game design—a career she hadn’t even considered before.

“I didn’t think of myself as smart enough of a person to be a doctor, or good enough with my hands to be a carpenter or something crazy. But when this came along I thought, ‘This is something I could really get into,’” says 18-year-old Dangel, now a senior. “Being in those classes is my favorite part of the day. Lunch is no longer my favorite class.”

The Entertainment Technology Academy (ETA) teaches the principals of game design. Created in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, it was developed with the goal of getting students engaged in their education by incorporating something 97 percent of them do outside of school—play video games. “Gaming Through the Ages,” the first prerequisite in a sequence of over 10 classes, focuses on the history of games from all cultures. It combines a little bit of everything—math, history, problem solving, writing—and a lot of playing hands-on games.

“I didn’t think of myself as smart enough of a person to be a doctor, or good enough with my hands to be a carpenter. But when this came along I thought, ‘This is something I could really get into.’” 
The ETA program resonated so well with Dangel because it combined her two biggest outside-of-school hobbies: art and video games.  Dangel grew up playing “Tomb Raider” and racing games, but her current favorite is the apocalyptic RPG “The Last of Us.” She spends her time outside of school writing fiction and drawing in her sketchbook. But until she met CMU graduate game design students, she never pictured blending the two together into a potential career.

Math teacher Mary Wilson, who taught Dangel’s “Gaming Through the Ages” class, says Dangel always got good grades, but was never really one to seek attention or latch on to an interest. Until she found herself in the course. “Allyssa just absolutely took off from there,” Wilson says. “She made her own plan; ‘Ok, this is what I want to do. I now see that I can take my personal interest in video games and art and formalize that with an educational plan.’”

Dangel started becoming more and more invested in anything her school offered having to do with technology or game design. Wilson says Dangel now said “Yes” to volunteer opportunities, trips, and just about anything offered.

Then, Dangel was invited to speak on a panel at the Reimagining Education Summit in Washington D.C., hosted by Andrea Mitchell. The audience of 200 (not to mention the TV viewership) didn’t make Dangel nervous though—she says she was prepared to talk.

“[Kids] seem to lose interest,” Dangel said, when asked why so many kids give up in school. “They feel that they really don’t need this education in the real world because it’s just your everyday math and English. But if we turn all the math and English into something interesting, maybe something different, and apply more technology to it, they might become more interested.”

With all the game knowledge she’d gained through the ETA program, last summer Dangel applied for the selective CMU National High School Gaming Academy. She spent six weeks in workshops and classes, by the end designing the futuristic art for a strategy game called “Proto-Wars.”

As she heads into her senior year, Dangel is researching colleges with game design programs. She’s looking forward to the internship she’ll have at an outside gaming company as part of the ETA program. With her parents and mentors supporting her, she plans to continue studying to be a game maker.

“The way my life got really extraordinary was all serendipitous,” she says of the sudden enthusiasm she’s found for going to school. “It was all spontaneous and it was all by accident, but it was a great accident.”