Planting Seeds of Social Change

It all started at Portland, OR’s first mini Maker-Faire. At the time, I was looking for ways to grow, professionally, though not necessarily while at the faire. My husband and I were tag-teaming with our five-year-old, trying to cover as much ground as possible before running out of steam. It was my turn to oversee the “making happen” while he was previewing booths ahead of us. When he came back to report in, he said something to the effect of:

“I just talked with some guys you have to meet! They are looking to start up some after school programs and the like, about video games, and they are talking about stuff you’ve been talking about: they want to help kids become better learners!”

My external reaction was “cool!” but inside, it was hot. “Oh, my.” I thought to myself. “I didn’t expect this. Am I ready to put my words into action?” Regarding professional growth, I’d been talking and thinking quite a bit about taking my knowledge to the streets, where I could potentially do some good outside the ivory tower. It’s one thing to talk about promoting growth and change in a college classroom, but another thing entirely to get off campus and, well, do something with a more direct benefit. I had recently dipped a toe in the water by trying my hand at writing for a general audience but it hadn’t gotten any traction to speak of … (no one makes it the first time around, I know, I know…) and I hadn’t yet decided what else to try. I’d been in conversation with a local school seeking out opportunities that could provide mutual benefit, but I hadn’t really landed on a project that captured my full attention yet…

So I self-consciously mulled it over for the next hour or so while we explored more exhibits, thoroughly enjoying our daughter’s unbridled enthusiasm for all things “maker.” She had sparks shooting out her eyes that day, so engaged was she in the spirit of making!

(as an example, she got to solder, build circuits, spin wool, drive a robotic car, create edible creatures out of chocolate, make her own smoothie on a converted bicycle, and oh, so much more!)

As we approached the area where “those guys were” my husband nudged me again. “Go on,” he said. “What can it hurt?”

So I did. I went in, politely examined the booth, and mustered up the nerve to say hello (have I ever mentioned that I lean towards introvert?). Instantly put at ease by Jeffrey’s easy-going approachable demeanor, we chatted about the group’s aims. I was intrigued and impressed. And more to the point, I saw an opportunity. I saw a possible entry point where I might be able to do some good.

Swallowing again, I introduced myself more formally (“I’m not just an interested parent, but rather an interested professor…”) and said I’d like to talk further. Jeffrey handed me his business card, and I went back to find my family happily creating an LED-enhanced pop-up card. I reported in, though they only gave me half their attention (the pop-up card creation was pretty engrossing).

That evening I sent an email. The first of many, as it turns out.

Skip ahead to the present day …

…and Pixel Arts is in full swing. The team, myself included, is working hard to “promote social change through game education” (i.e., the title of a poster presentation I recently gave at the annual meetings of the Association for Psychological Science).

In a nutshell, Pixel Arts aims to plant the seeds of social change by providing rich extra-educational programming (e.g., after school, winter break, & summer break sessions) for youth. The organization targets youth who need such programming the most: youth who experience educational disadvantages due to SES and other demographic strikes against them; but no one is excluded from a camp, space permitting. Their curricular theme is “game education” but they do much more than that.

Youth lucky enough to participate in one of the free-of-charge camps learn-by-doing to become designers. That is, they aren’t using games as a proxy for learning, rather participating youth learn the tools of game design. Designing a game concept requires understanding and application of logic (if-then; cause & effect), of narrative (engaging games tell stories), of character quality (engaging games include memorable characters), of perspective taking (i.e., of players, of characters in the game, and so on), and so on. Game design requires graphic arts abilities to make the vision a designer has imagined a virtual reality. Game design also requires computer coding, to make the game actually work on a device.

As such, when youth participate in a camp, they spend time in the Game Design Module where no electronics nor coding takes place – it’s all logic and brainstorming. You might see youth playing board games, or card games or interactive games, followed by deconstruction of the logical elements. Youth also spend time learning about digital Art & Animation, in a module of the same name. The third module they can experience is learning relevant computer coding languages, in the Coding Module.

Each module stands alone, so youth can either learn about all three elements, or focus in on one element. Some participating youth start from zero, others come in with skills that they further hone. Benefits of participation include enhanced …

  • Technical skills noted above
  • Logical capacity
  • “Non-cognitive” learning skills, for example, by working through challenges in a supportive environment where youth note the connection between their efforts and their successes (i.e., they “fail forward” in a positive, encouraging way)
  • Collaborative, team-work skills
  • Confidence in their ability to tackle difficult challenges

In short, it bears repeating that participating youths’ knowledge & skill in STEM (or rather STEAM, to include “arts”) fields grows, as do their “soft-skills,” also sometimes called “non-cognitive” skills – motivational skills that are essential for becoming autonomous, life-long learners (skills I discuss at length in other posts here on CogEdu).

And all this occurs in a fun-loving, peaceable, positive environment. Everyone is having fun – youth, mentors, organizers, assessors. You name it, we all enjoy this. It hardly feels like work, if you ask me (did I mention that I like to analyze data? I do. Really.)! The organization’s motto, “Play, Make, Design” permeates all aspects of camp. Camp personnel embody the spirit of the motto and their enthusiasm is contagious…and effective.

Doing Good.

Pixel Arts isn’t just assuming that youth will benefit from their participation. Rather they assess each camp to capture actual evidence of growth (and to evaluate their own effectiveness – this group also serves as a fantastic model of how to put into practice the teaching principle of reflective engagement). Youth create portfolios to document their STEAM-related work, and youth report on their “non-cognitives” (e.g., confidence, metacognition, and motivation) at the beginning and at the end of each camp. As the assessment data rolls in (over 200 youth have participated, in just one year of operation), analyses are revealing good news. The camp concept works.

Camp personnel at all levels reflect on each camp, and adjust as needed to ensure that each camp improves upon the one before it. Though youth in a particular camp might not know it, Pixel Arts personnel “walk the talk” they share with youth: they try something, reflect on it, and grow by repeating what works and improving upon what doesn’t.

Thus far, Pixel Arts runs on the spirit of volunteerism. The camps are free-of-charge and mentors donate their time and expertise. Local organizations donate food. Local organizations open their doors and donate their spaces. Fundraising yields computers and materials. I donate my time and expertise on the back end by designing and then doing the camp evaluations. I enter and analyze data, comb over qualitative materials to glean patterns that may compliment the quantitative information gathered, and write up reports to share with Pixel Arts personnel and other relevant parties. I have contributed to the design & focus of aspects of mentor training. I’ve invited interested college students to engage with the camp and have shared Pixel Arts’ vision and initial successes with the psychological community at conference. Indeed, the depth and scope of volunteerism is astounding.

Planting Seeds of Change

It is too soon to know for certain whether skills learned in a Pixel Arts camp will generalize to other aspects of the youths’ lives. That kind of assessment hasn’t happened yet, because the organization is still young. Processes to this end are sure to be enacted though, in time. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that generalization will happen though. The spirit of innovation and achievement of goals, no matter how small or large is infectious. And when such experiences get under your skin, they tend to stay there.

For myself, there are times when my volunteerism commitments clash a bit with other responsibilities in my life, creating some moments of stress and doubt. But all it takes is a moment or two of reflection on all the good that’s already occurred because of the grand efforts and vision that guides Pixel Arts, and my smile returns, my energy restored. My goals of getting out of the ivory tower to do some good in the world are being met with this work.

Indeed, I often find myself thinking about how Ben Franklin book-ended his days, wherein he reputedly began by asking himself “What good shall I do this day?” and ended his day reflecting on “What good have I done this day?” When my daily reflection involves work for Pixel Arts, I can rest easy.

Note: the 8-bit artwork displayed here was created by participating youth and is reproduced with permission of Pixel Arts personnel.



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