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October 21, 2009 / Ben Chun

Rambus/KCI Innovation Award

I’m really excited to have gotten the call today from Steve McGriff at the Krause Center for Innovation telling me that I won the 2009 Rambus/KCI Innovation Award. I’ll be presenting the project, which I wrote about briefly just before starting it, at their award event on November 4th. Here’s what I wrote for the entry:


In this project, high school juniors and seniors built educational video games for elementary school students. Using a local fifth grade class as a focus group, they researched the likes, dislikes, and academic goals of the younger students and their teacher. Then they worked in teams to generate ideas, align game play with educational objectives, design, build, test, and deliver the games online. By watching fifth grade students play-test the games, my students found out just how demanding a real client can be – in addition to sharing in the excitement of enabling elementary students to have fun while learning.


When my students first got off the city bus in front of Gordon J. Lau Elementary School in Chinatown, I don’t think any of them really knew what was about to happen. I certainly didn’t. This was late January 2009 and my Introduction to Programming class, made up of juniors and seniors, was walking in to its first-ever client visit. Granted, the client was a class of fifth grade students and their teacher, but that didn’t seem to lower the stakes.

My students had a clear mission even though it was their first time meeting these younger students: Find out what kind of games they love to play. Find out what they love about them. Then find out what they are supposed to be learning in school. That would be the easy part. My students knew that later they would be synthesizing this information to build educational video games intended to address the very significant challenge of holding a fifth-grader’s attention while simultaneously teaching them something.

I wasn’t sure if they would be too cool to sit in those little fifth grade chairs, but after the first two minutes it felt like a family reunion. My students knew how to ask about things that I didn’t even realize existed: Club Penguin and Xbox Live turned out to be high on the list. They collected pages and pages of information about the students’ study habits, game interests, other activities, and level of computer skill. They investigated favorite cartoons and celebrities, and let the younger kids show off their academic skills. Actually, I’m pretty sure some of the youngsters legitimately had their state capitals down better than my kids. I know Helena, Montana stumped me. We joked that our games were all going to have to be called “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?”

When the bell rang for the elementary students, my kids stayed and interviewed the fifth grade teacher, Ms. Eliza Gee. She ran them over the geography, vocabulary, mathematics, writing, and science topics that her students would be learning in the coming months. She sent us home with a blank fifth grade report card (and yes, they’re still filled out on triplicate forms) showing all the academic standards for the year.

When we got back to the high school, I posted that fifth grade report card on the wall under a cute, silly title: “Audience Profile Document”. The next task for my students was to brainstorm games that would appeal to the younger kids but also accomplish Ms. Gee’s educational goals. They came up with all sorts of ideas – from UFOs traveling through the solar system to setting Super Mario Brothers in the Revolutionary War to using monsters and rainbows made of ice cream in a math game about statistics. Clearly they were tuned in to the fun aspect of the project. Later in the week, I found a group standing off to the side of the room, discussing where on the “Audience Profile Document” their game would fall. They understood the educational aspect as well.

As the students worked on their teams in various roles – artist, designer, programmer, and project manager – I met with different groups each day. Sometimes I would talk to specific teams about their work and sometimes I would meet with students based on their roles. This allowed smaller group instruction for tricky programming concepts, or digital art workflows, and even a meeting where the project managers helped one of their fellow PMs who was having trouble getting her group to cooperate. Based on her peers’ suggestions she switched some of the team’s roles around and things smoothed out. Not only did this group structure allow me to focus my instruction more deeply, it also let the students experience real teamwork. This wasn’t just a report where each person could write a page and then staple them all together. They were relying on each other to meet a hard deadline – the fifth graders were coming.

In the week leading up to the visit, my students were scrambling to finish alpha versions of the games. Things were broken, ideas weren’t working, and the stress level was rising. It almost felt like I was back in the software industry, trying to hit a ship date. I don’t remember ever staying late when I was a student in high school – at least not the way I did in my jobs after college as a computer programmer. But my students seemed to understand that this was more than just an assignment and they put in the extra time.

Alpha day had its highs (the kids!) and lows (the bugs), but every team ended up with a huge list of changes and enhancements that they wanted to implement. We learned how to prioritize, how to calculate the critical path through a set of interdependent tasks, and then they were back to work. The next week we got a set of handwritten thank-you letters. I made each project manager keep them with their team’s notes. I think they had a new appreciation for the habit of small businesses to frame the first dollar they ever make.

Our next stop would be the computer lab at the elementary school. We were using this fifth grade class to drive the design process, but my students knew that their ultimate audience would be online – anyone anywhere would be able to access their games. The work they put in for this class of elementary school students could eventually benefit students all over the world.

A little less than two months after starting the project, my students were ready for the second day of play-testing. This time we got off the bus with determination. Previously we’d only visited the students in their fifth-grade classroom, so it was enlightening to see what they had to work with in the school library. My students had done the development work on relatively recent PCs, and the elementary school had a set of older Macs. Fortunately all the games worked and at the end of the day we called the beta test a success.

Then we entered the home stretch, trying to find and fix every bug. Racing to get their games done before the infamous week of STAR testing, my students started to really feel proud of their work. We’d learned a lot more than just how to write code. We’d even learned more than how to work together. We had a purpose and a product. And the first step was just getting on the city bus.

See the finished games (and student-written promotional descriptions) online at:


Leave a Comment
  1. Jackie Ballarini / Oct 24 2009 9:01 am

    Congrats – to both you and your students!

  2. Dan Meyer / Oct 24 2009 11:29 am

    Congratulations. Great work.


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