In this series of articles, we check in with teachers from TeacherQuest—a unique professional development program focused on games and game design.

Through this 11-month program, which includes a summer intensive followed by a series of online design challenges, teachers learn to design and use games to develop 21st century skills.

Students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are challenging the familiar adage “don’t play with your food.”

TeacherQuester Timmie Kearns teaches Family and Consumer Science, which is the current reference for the Home Economics classes of the 20th century. But Kearns’ class is far from simple cake baking and grocery list planning. In fact, her co-ed class blends technology with games and other hands-on activities that make her students hungry to participate.

Known as a forward-thinking school district, Elizabeth Forward is home to several programs that are pioneering the way students learn. They have a symbiotic relationship with Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, which frequently playtests in-development games with students primarily in their middle and high schools. Not to mention the Dream Factory, a makerspace that boasts the latest technology and tinkering equipment. As if having a Dream Factory wasn’t enough to give the school “geek-cred,” each of the 2,355 students received their own iPad in the school’s signature bright red color. Elizabeth Forward was the first school district in Pennsylvania to give an iPad to every student.

Given the investments that the school’s administration has made in their students and teachers, it’s no surprise they jumped at the chance to participate in TeacherQuest—an 11-month professional development program that teaches educators how to design games and integrate game-like learning into their classrooms and curriculum. TeacherQuest is a partnership between NYC’s Institute of Play and the Pittsburgh area’s Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3 STEAM initiative. Teachers from all Allegheny County schools were invited to apply. Timmie Kearns and Anne Meals (a language arts teacher) attended on behalf of Elizabeth Forward. Months after beginning, both teachers are rocking game-based learning in their respective classrooms.

At the beginning of Kearns’ nine-week rotation of the 6th grade Family and Consumer Science class, students covered the basics of food preparation like sanitation, food-borne illnesses and kitchen basics. Then they really got cooking. Students made their own Jolly Rancher lollipops, muffins, “goop” granola, snickerdoodles, tortilla chips and apple dip and other tasty treats. Kearns could see that the students had a blast making their own food—but memorizing definitions and food terminology were not so much fun. That’s when she broke out the secret weapon she had been practicing in TeacherQuest…game design.

TQ_EFMS_slideshow5After designing her own games as part of the TeacherQuest program, Kearns was ready to lead her students through the design process. She started by giving them some examples, like game shows and classic card games. Within a week, the students had designed and created their own games aimed at learning the technical terms used in cooking. Broken into teams, the students did their own “game jam,” where they playtested each other’s games. The results included games inspired by Apples to Apples, Musical Chairs, Go Fish, and a classroom favorite, 7-Up. Every student was engaged helping teammates set up their games. An observer wouldn’t have guessed that these students were learning terminology and definitions. It looked more like a summer camp or community fun day.

“This is definitely making learning definitions less boring!” Kearns said as she laughed. “It’s great to see the students really connecting with each other and having memorable experiences while learning.” She went on to talk about her experience making games at the summer intensive portion of the TeacherQuest program. “My biggest obstacle was letting go of being a perfectionist, and realizing that I could make a game and jam on it even if it wasn’t completely flushed out. We learned we could mod a game on the fly. And that was really eye-opening for me. Basically, I had been playing games my whole life, just like my students, and I knew more than I thought I did.”

Kearns breaks down the benefits of integrating gameplay into her curriculum into three ways.

  • The students learned problem solving, since they had to create their own method of learning and work through the rules and structure of the game, then teach it to others.
  • Creating games instills patience in her students. In a time when people expect immediate gratification, this method of self-regulation shows kids that they may have to rework something in order to get it right.
  • Lastly, Kearns saw the kids developing a special camaraderie with each other that you don’t get from learning independently. They had to work together, give each other feedback, and interact in order to be able to learn the material.

Trish Maddas, principal at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, is ecstatic about what she’s seeing in the classrooms, and says the feedback from parents is overwhelmingly positive. “When you come to sewing or cooking class, it tends to not be something students think is really fun right away,” said Maddas. “But now that we’ve integrated gaming, students are just really excited to get to work. Kids go home and tell parents how fun school is, and this program is carrying over into the home and the community.”

Elizabeth Forward is certainly mixing up the pot when it comes to learning, and we can’t wait to see what they sink their teeth into next.