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Civic Impact

Evans City 6th graders' "Archers Vs. Aliens" video game hits bullseye to win national contest


Four 12-year-old Evans City Middle Schoolers won one of 17 youth prizes -- from a field of 3,700 entries -- for their game, Archers vs. Aliens, in this year's National STEM Video Game Challenge.
 
And they had fun doing it, too, their parents say.
 
The White House-inspired contest, designed to encourage learning in science, technology, engineering and math, gave the kids new laptops with educational and game-design software, $2,000 to send to their favorite charity, a cool ceremony at a Smithsonian museum -- and months of design work leading up to the game's completion.
 
"There were many weekends," says Lori Schexnaildre, mother of Connor, part of the winning team with Campbell Kriess, Justin Bicehouse and Drew McCarron. "They worked at it diligently. They really worked together as a team. They had a good time doing it, which was the best thing about it.
 
"I played it," she adds. "It is really well put together." Designed to encourage math learning in 8-year-olds, it awards archers with more arrows to shoot from atop their castle the more equations they answer correctly, allowing them to fight off approaching aliens. Miss the math answers and the archers eventually run out of arrows.
 
"It certainly help[ed] Drew explore what his interests are and what he might see himself doing professionally someday," says mother Kelly McCarron. "He has expressed a desire to explore the engineering and design fields," although it's still a bit early to settle on a career, she cautions.
 
Campbell Kriess's mom Elana says her son is already set on being a game designer and programmer. "This basically validated for him everything he wants to do in his future," she says, while also serving as a great learning experience. "Working with his peers was challenging: dealing with scheduling issues, differences of opinion, et cetera, were all good lessons. And he is also learning about the business side of video game design -- he is now selling the game online and had to learn about how to market it, process payments [and] being customer-friendly, et cetera."
 
Crucial to the early stages of this learning experience was the training workshop run by WQED in January (since PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are contest sponsors), which half the winning Evans City team attended. The workshop began with training by another contest sponsor, E-Line Media, in GameStar Mechanic, their free game-designing platform, and continued with lessons in how to increase kids' math literacy through games, as well as gaming principles, from rule-changing to storyboarding and using paper prototypes.
 
"Making a game isn't just about the digital programming -- it's about the narrative behind it," notes Jennifer Stancil, executive director of educational partnerships for WQED.
 
The day continued at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, where the kids walked into the middle of a 48-hour game-building challenge for adults called the Global Game Jam. Game Jammers mentored the children by exposing them to new games under development.
 
"We will be a game institute to facilitate more of this" training for middle schoolers in the future, says Stancil, referring to WQED's new Game ON! Institute. "I hope the boys come back and be mentors for the new kids who are trying to win the contest."
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Sources: Lori Schexnaildre; Kelly McCarron; Elana Kriess; Jennifer Stancil, WQED
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