Teens take on serious summer games

Written By By SUE ONTIVEROS Posted: 08/04/2014, 12:12pm

Evan, Armani and their new friends have spent most of their summer playing games.

And that’s a good thing.

Oh, they’re not your stereotypical teens of summer, lost in solitary play while hunched over a laptop. While these 70 Chicago teens — predominantly male, primarily from the South and West Sides — may be at play, in reality they are learning so much about digital storytelling, social issues and life skills.

They’re involved with Project S.E.E.D. (Story Engineering and Enabling Device), sponsored by Game Changer Chicago Design Lab at the University of Chicago. During the five-week program that wraps up Friday, the students started out with an elaborate extended game (think science fiction, alternative universe). While there’s a competitive component, the students also have to collaborate with teammates. They have to figure out who does what best and let him or her handle it, all the while giving support and help as needed.

Many of them have to get themselves to U of C’s campus via public transportation. The day starts at 9, so no summer sleeping in here. Each realizes the whole team suffers if one person’s tardy. Good lesson, discovering your actions affect others.

In the United States we embrace and extoll the virtues of individual initiative. With the exception of sports, team collaboration is not celebrated, but it should be. That’s what most of work and life requires.

When you think about the problems our world now faces, “the majority will be solved by complex teams,” says Dr. Patrick Jagoda. Making sure the next generation is ready to take them on is a good idea.

In its second year, Project S.E.E.D. is the brainchild of Jagoda and Dr. Melissa Gilliam. The emphasis is on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning, but the humanities are very much a part of the experience.

When it came to the students themselves, the program wasn’t looking in particular for the brainiacs of the world; in fact, Gilliam says they don’t know which kids excel in school and which ones struggle.

Leading the group, researching, planning and designing the game call for a variety of skills. “There should be a way for anybody’s skills” to play a role in a game’s creation, according to Gilliam.

Oh, and here’s the thing about those games: while entertaining, each revolves around a social issue, often the very things these kids have encountered in their own lives: unemployment, bullying, HIV. Known to many as Serious Games, they simulate a real-life problem and through play figure out solutions.

Don’t discount that these issues are being taken on in play, says Jagoda. “When you encourage students to play, they’re more likely to be active learners,” he says.

If something doesn’t go quite as planned, that’s fine. Today’s kids are under so much pressure to be perfect in school or with their friends. That’s why they need an environment like this.

“They don’t have a lot of places where failure and learning can be OK,” says Gilliam.

When I caught up with them, the students were fine-tuning their games. Everyone was so into the process, so confident explaining their game and its purpose. Wouldn’t surprise me if this summer’s opened some eyes to future career possibilities, which, of course, is something Project S.E.E.D. hopes will be an offshoot of the program.

Fun, games, future dreams and a lot of learning. Sounds like a good summer to me.

Email: sontiveros@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SueOntiveros

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