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.”