Pennsylvania district uses gaming to help kids stay in school


About four years ago, students at Elizabeth Forward High School were still learning typing, Excel and PowerPoint. Now, they work on 3D modeling and games.

The Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, district revamped its curriculum and facilities in 2012 after school leaders decided to take a different tactic in an effort to deter kids from dropping out, assistant superintendent Todd Keruskin said in an interview. Twenty high school students dropped out in the 2010-11 school year, according to state Education Department statistics.

With a $10,000 grant from the Grable Foundation, a local organization that provides funding for youth programs, the school created a work space modeled after one at Google, without a teacher’s desk in front of the classroom. High school students can choose from nine courses in the school’s Entertainment Technology Academy, develop games and apps in labs after school, and even intern for nonprofits in the Pittsburgh area.

“When we first started the gaming academy, the community thought we were teaching kids about casino gaming, not apps and video games,” Keruskin joked.

The unconventional curriculum has started turning heads – the district is among about two dozen across the country that were recognized by the White House for aligning with President Barack Obama’s Computer Science For All Initiative. The president requested $4 billion in the federal budget for kids in preschool through high school to get greater access to STEM and computer science classes and programs.

Keruskin said the remodeled courses allow students to think outside the box.

“There is a large group of kids in our high school who love technology, but they weren’t able to be creative with technology,” he said. “So the gaming academy helped and connected those kids.”

About 200 of the high school students are currently enrolled in the elective gaming courses. Students first take an introductory course called “Evolution of Games,” researching cultures in ancient Egypt and Rome, and then developing game prototypes based off their studies. Then they can choose from one of three tracks: programming their ideas with a software called GameMaker, using digital storytelling or creating 3D art.

Course content is based on teaching materials provided by Zulama, a gaming education company founded in 2009. Elizabeth Forward district officials bought the annual subscription to Zulama’s learning management system, which provides syllabi, sample lessons and assignments, as well as online and in-person training for teachers.

“The entire process is individual work coupled with team projects,” said John Super, sales and marketing director of Zulama. “In a team, you get some number of people taking storytelling, and some number of people taking programming. They’re all exchanging [ideas].”

The annual subscription costs about $2,500 for a school with around 200 students, Super said. Elizabeth Forward spends around $10,000 each year for nearly 800 students.

After students are equipped with hands-on skills, they can take their games and apps straight into the community.

A group of high school students is currently working on apps around national events, including the crash of Flight 93 on 9/11. The tool is aimed at helping young children understand the facts of the tragedy. They reached out to the Flight 93 National Memorial, a national park on the site of where the plane crashed in southeast Pittsburgh, for guidance.

To prepare younger kids for the rigorous high school curriculum, elementary and middle school students become familiar with computers, from typing to programming principles. The district uses robots developed by Carnegie Mellon University, which are equipped with motors, buzzers, accelerometers and sensors. Students learn to control the sound and movement of the robots through several programming languages, including C++, Java and Python.

“I think changing the learning environment of a classroom when you’re implementing these gaming courses is something that I strongly recommend,” Keruskin said last week during a webinar about how schools can utilize products. “It will change the level of engagement of your students.”

In December 2012, inspired by a teen center in the Chicago Public Library that was established by Carnegie Mellon, the district built its own media center inside the high school library with another $160,000 from the Grable Foundation and help from the university.

The center has a television studio and a sound studio, as well as a stage for performances. The room is furnished with 3D printers, flat-screen televisions and computers that are installed with movie editing and music software.

There’s more – the school district also created several labs, including one called the Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab and another called the Embodied Learning Lab.

With 34 percent of its students coming from low-income homes, Elizabeth Forward was once considered an unlikely place to transform. The school district serves the Elizabeth borough and the Forward township in Allegheny County, where the median household income is $35,815 and $40,921, respectively. That’s compared to the state average of about $53,115, according to U.S. Census statistics.

The district received a “warning” from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for its weak academic performance in 2011. The state has since changed its measuring system on academic performance and scores reflecting recent progress have been uneven.

However, Keruskin said the new curriculum is getting “students that may never engage in school” excited to come to class now.

“We see computer science classes and clubs now after school,” Keruskin continued. “Kids don’t want to leave when school is off.”

Reach the reporter at and follow her on Twitter @yizhuevy.