Last summer, while some of their peers were at home playing video games, 20 Pflugerville ISD students were learning how to design them.
Educators set up a game incubator, and students worked in teams, interacted with real-world clients such as AMD to solve problems and completed peer reviews—the kinds of tasks that students will need in the job market.
David Conover of Pflugerville ISD, Lonny Stern of nonprofit Skillpoint Alliance and Priya Nihalani of mobile application developer GetYa Learn On LLC spoke during "How to Start a Game Company Incubator in a School," a panel during SXSW Interactive on March 10.
Connally High School in Pflugerville offers courses titled Art of Video Game Technology, Video Game Design, Computer Programming and Practicum in Video Game Design during the school year, according to its coursebook.
In 2010, Skillpoint Alliance created two Velocity programs at Connally.
Velocity Prep is a 160-hour, four-week summer course in which students get paid to create projects.
"Skillpoint works with host schools in lower-income and high-needs communities to recruit math and science 'bubble students' to form consulting companies to address actual projects for a STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] industry client," according to Skillpoint's website.
Velocity Capstone is a 90- to 160-hour semester course during the school year. Students can earn a full year's science credit in a semester, Stern said.
"We created Velocity because companies want students to be able to work in teams and have actual job experience, but none of them are willing to hire high school interns," he said. "We outsourced it. We are an incubator, so they don't have to worry about headcount. They don't have to say, 'If I hire this intern, I can't hire this other person on staff.'"
One way of getting students interested in STEM classes is to address the social impact and grand challenges of engineering, according to Stern.
"We don't start with, 'We're going to build robots.' We say, 'There's been a natural disaster and we need a robot to help with search and rescue missions,' and then show them the whiz-bang features of robots,'" he said. "If you only say the first one, you will only get the kids who are already interested in game design."
The nonprofit worked with AMD, Kalani Games and the Texas Advanced Computing Center.
Stern said that high school students understand potential STEM career salaries when you break it down into more familiar terms.
"If you tell students that a professional may earn $69,000 to $80,000, [it's abstract]," he said. "If you say, 'You can make $35 or $42 per hour," they get that [and are impressed with it], because they're making like $7 an hour now."
The students are asked about their own knowledge and comfort with science topics twice during the course, once in the beginning and once at the end. Nihalani said she enjoyed reading students' self-reporting.
"We ask them about their level of knowledge or level of comfort with science classes, if [they start out reporting a high level of comfort] and then it goes low [by the end], that's a good thing," she said. "That means they're developing the ability to know when they don't know something."