Meaningful play to strengthen STEM’s Impact

Educator, Game Developer Ian Zang explains how making STEM fun can better prepare our future workforce.

Ian Zang taught science to high-risk students in Detroit before bringing his passion for education and his love of board games to Pittsburgh in 2015. Now he’s a Professional Development Coordinator for Carnegie Science Center, and he spends his days convincing teachers that STEM isn’t just meaningful and necessary, but that it should be fun and affordable, too. 

Zang also helps to coordinate the Pittsburgh Regional STEM Ecosystem, a national initiative that’s building local coalitions to equip tomorrow’s workforce with 21st Century skills. That means bringing the Remake Learning Council, Carnegie Science Center, YMCA, Chevron US, Carnegie Mellon University, Junior Achievement and many others together to ensure that every child in Western Pennsylvania has equal access to STEM education.


Ian Zang, STEM Professional Development Coordinator at Carnegie Science Center / Photo by Michael Samsky

What is STEM and what does it have to do with education?

It’s not just science, technology, engineering, and math. We think of STEM as the seasoning packet to the meal that is education. It is the seasoning we can add to every class.

It’s inquiry-focused learning. It’s the essential critical thinking skills that will support actually doing real work in the future. If students can approach a problem, work through it, set goals, deal with mistakes, they’ll succeed. How do they do that? STEM.


What is the Pittsburgh Regional STEM Learning Ecosystem working to achieve?

It’s very sad that technology companies can’t fill basic jobs because people don’t have these skills. Robotics companies are going to have to leave Pittsburgh if they don’t find people to take these jobs. Get a basic robotics degree and they will hire you and train you. They’re looking for hard workers that communicate well and can work through adversity.

The STEM Learning Ecosystem has members across sectors. We’re hoping to create a generation that can work through problems efficiently and communicate with coworkers effectively so they can fill these jobs.

Hopefully, with the STEM Learning Ecosystem, we’ll have more of a collaborative approach to bringing the public into the workshops and activities going on. Keeping everyone on the same page and aware of the cool things that are happening is better for the region as a whole. We’d like to see as many people working together as we can.


What challenges do teachers report that hinder their ability to teach STEM lessons?

Time and money. Teachers have really cool ideas, they just don’t have the resources. It’s difficult to tell them, “Let’s do more STEM, let’s add on more things to the work you’re already doing,” because sometimes they’re treading water. To say, “We’re going to improve STEM,” it’s a monumental task. There are so many things you could do to improve, but how can we focus on a few things instead?


What resources do you suggest for teachers and parents?

Stemisphere is the central hub for Western PA where you can find summer camps, lesson plans you can do at home with your kids. It’s searchable by parents, educators, students, and it’s free.

In my workshops at the Carnegie Science Center, we identify feasible goals teachers can reach throughout a school year. Many STEM projects require little to no investment of money. Maybe craft supplies. STEM doesn’t need to be a huge overhaul. Add a little salt. That makes it flavorful. Add some pepper. Okay, now we’re moving. Add more spices, now we’re cooking!

I wish I could take credit for that metaphor, by the way. That’s part of the first workshop we do for the STEM Excellence Pathway, which has a self-assessment tool on the Stemisphere web site, which is now being used across the country. It helps schools identify priority areas they can focus on and put an action plan into place for where they can realistically improve.

“If we’re playing a game just for fun, how can we make it meaningful?” — Ian Zang

In addition to your work at the Carnegie Science Center, you run a private consulting business as a game developer. Where do games and education intersect?

I’m a big board gamer. I believe there is a future for them in family and educational entertainment. Games will be a facilitator of learning in a big way. A lot of what I do in the workshops at the Science Center revolves around asking, “How can play be meaningful?”

Happy Salmon is a great example. It’s a card game, it’s active, it’s fast. Kids have a blast with it. If your card says “High 5,” we high-five, then we switch places. If it says “Pound It,” we fist bump. Teachers say, “This isn’t educational!” So I ask, “How can you change this to make it content-specific?”

Say they’re teaching an abstract concept like geometry. Change what’s on the cards to correlate to the content. Imagine it says “Parallel” instead of “Pound It.” We could hold our arms out straight. What if the card says “Acute?” Bend your elbow! “Perpendicular?” We cross arms.

Not only do the kids have fun, they do something with their bodies, they’re up and active, it disrupts their paradigm, and that makes them remember. There are games coming out that are more cooperative and collaborative than ever before.

In one of my workshops, we play Rock, Paper, Scissors. Rock beats scissors. Great. Scissors cut paper. Got it. Paper beats rock? Why? It doesn’t make sense. Nobody gets that one.

The point of the exercise is to ask, what is the meaning of doing this? If we’re playing a game just for fun, how can we make it meaningful?

I ask the teachers to edit the games they already know and come up with something that’s not just workable but meaningful. It’s thinking through the challenges and asking, how we can make this work in an effective manner?

Sometimes it doesn’t work, but that’s half the battle. I hate to use the word “grit” because it’s overused, but this allows kids to develop that grit. That is what we want kids to understand. It’s okay if things don’t work the first time. Sometimes you have to reiterate and fix. That’s how you learn the skills that will actually allow you to succeed in life.

Published July 10, 2017

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