Hacker High School, GameDesk, Aims To Create A Generation of Makers

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Facebook created a $100 billion empire on top of a “hacker culture,” a workplace ethos that encourages wild experimentation and collaborative fun. Now, AT&T is betting $3.8 million that one school, GameDesk, can prepare students for the controlled chaos of the modern workplace.

At GameDesk, subjects, from English to Algebra, are an interdisciplinary investigation into real world problems and the curriculum employs the creation of video games, movies, and art, to understand them better. As CEO Lucien Vattel, tells us, in order to recreate one’s own version of Angry Birds, students must model the mathematical principle of an arc, the parabola. Armed with a heavy dose of curiosity, and the skills to physically create new products, graduates will be better prepared for the modern workforce.

The sizable contribution from AT&T will go towards creating a public learning space for teachers in Los Angeles, a research tank, and an online hub that will curate interactive curricula from GameDesk and around the web.

“There’s something really wonderful about how these new technologies and games can engage youth,” said Vattel. “We really want to see how that wonder can lead to serious learning.”

The defining principle at GameDesk is that learning and fun are not mutually exclusive. Students are given enough leeway in every class to investigate the topics which inspire their curiosity the most. “I wanted to make my grasshopper jump naturally,” explains student, Edward Solis, about a math-based game he designed, “by using the quadratic formula I can determine the vertex and which angle its jumping to.”

A GameDesk approach to instilling an unmitigated love of life-time learning could help curb the disturbingly high dropout rate, especially of engineers.

Moreover, education scientists have long known that incentives, such as money or gold stars, destroy productive curiosity (for a great explanation, see the illustrated version of Daniel Pink’s viral RSA talk below):

Maker Movement

At GameDesk, every student learns to tinker, program, and build, whether it be a video game, a film, or by starting a blog. Since the late 20th century, the so-called maker-movement, or consumer-manufacturing, has exploded. Consumers are increasingly designing or modify their products, according to MIT’s Eric Von Hippel, in Democratizing Innovation.

As a result, schools are beginning to replace foreign languages with computer programming. GameDesk is simply ahead of the curve, adding design and engineering to computer programming, to fill out the full maker toolbelt of its graduates.

However, the public education system has yet to quantify the value of a student who can build their own iPad app. So, if GameDesk hopes to succeed in its mission to spread the hacker gospel to other schools it has to prove that game design improves standardized test scores. Preliminary results from a University of Southern California show that play can, in fact, lead to better learning.

Perhaps most importantly, GameDesk is committed to serving underprivileged youth. “Many of our students do not even understand what an engineer does,” explains Vattel. Expensive technologies and qualified teachers are often reserved for the most affluent students.

Now, with an expanded online reach and an open space for teachers to learn the curriculum, GameDesk can help create not just an elite class of makers, but an entire generation.