Students creating their own digital learning tools in preparation for future tech jobs

Geometry didn’t come easily to Steven Ugalde, an eighth-grader at East Austin College Prep Academy. But somehow, the subject didn’t seem so daunting in the form of a game.

An online academic game that Ugalde designed and created, that is.

Ugalde and his classmates at College Prep, a charter middle school for sixth- through eighth-graders, are the only students in the state that participate in Globaloria, a program through which students pursue a digital curriculum along with standard coursework.

Every day, in addition to routine reading, math and science classes, students at College Prep head off to Globaloria class. It’s the only school in the country to require all students to take Globaloria every day, as opposed to taking the class as an elective.

The program, run by the New York-based company WorldWide Workshop, is in 80 schools in seven states. The Austin branch is financed by Advanced Micro Devices, which recruited Globaloria to the city in 2009.

Globaloria is a social learning network for students, through which they create profile pages for themselves and the teams with which they work on projects, sharing both interests — favorite foods, favorite technical gadgets — and their work. Like with Facebook, on Globaloria, students can peruse their peers’ projects and leave comments. Teachers also have Globaloria pages.

The founder and president of WorldWide Workshop, Idit Harel Caperton, was in Austin last week for the South by Southwest Education Conference. Harel Caperton said Austin is a natural spot for launching a cutting-edge digital curriculum.

A key goal of the program is to establish College Prep as a pipeline to direct students into high-tech fields, she said.

“Austin is becoming such an important hub for the tech industry, the creative industry, the game design industry,” Harel Caperton said. “Austin needs to use local people.”

In College Prep’s computer labs — one of which is decorated with murals of leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. and Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara — students design and create digital games rooted in various academic subjects. The program aims to link technology to every field.

When Ugalde was in sixth grade, he was assigned to create a game that combined math and a social issue. Geometry was tough for him, so he tackled the subject through his game. Ugalde’s design featured a student who wanted to clean up his community. As the character picked up, for example, a soda can, the game player would have to calculate the volume of the can, a cylinder. (For the curious, the formula is volume = Pi x radius squared x height.)

“A lot of jobs out there focus on math and technology,” said Ugalde, who lives in East Austin. “So these programs help us prepare for the future.”

Principal Marisol Rocha said the benefits of the program are already evident. For about 40 percent of her students, English is a second language, she said. Yet Rocha said the school recently ranked near the 90th percentile on the writing part of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests. Rocha attributed that success in part to Globaloria, which also encourages students to improve their language skills — games often require writing, especially in blogs — in a fashion students find engaging, she said.

“Globaloria has done amazing things for our campus,” she said. “We’ve seen kids taken to higher cognitive levels on a daily basis.”

Harel Caperton said the program provides opportunities that children from disadvantaged East Austin communities might not otherwise have.

“The tech sector is lacking girls, and it’s lacking boys and girls from Hispanic, African American, low-income backgrounds,” Harel Caperton said. “But there is talent everywhere, and these kids deserve (a Massachusetts Institute of Technology)-style education. This is the MIT style of teaching we bring to these kids.”

In addition to designing science- and math-based computer games, some students at College Prep use the program to tackle subjects not typically associated with technology.

Dajasia Hitchcock, an eighth-grader at College Prep, is creating an online game that incorporates Greek mythology and ancient architecture. She said part of her strategy in designing the game was that the product should have a “smart factor” and a “fun factor,” so players have an interesting and substantive experience.

“I like it better than learning the traditional way with textbooks,” she said of Globaloria. “It’s more engaging, and kids now are so into technology. I find it more interesting than book work.”

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