Level up on STEAM by designing with empathy in mind

A couple of weeks ago, when I asked my class how many played video games, almost every arm in the room instantly shot up. So it wasn’t really a surprise when students in my Grade 5 class showed high levels of engagement in a week of immersive learning at the Foundry when they worked in pairs to design a video game.


Most schools that teach Design and Technology will likely also teach a unit on Video Game design which will school students on game theory, user experience, character development and coding. On its own, this is already an exciting and engaging topic for most students as so many are gamers.  At The Harbour School, we teach a unit on Video Game design as well, but it is framed with inclusion in mind. When teaching design, it is important to convey to students that designers must use empathy when designing for others so that the design meets the needs of the end-user.


The process

 Students in my Grade 5 class were challenged to design a video game and a custom video game controller for a student who has limited mobility in his fingers and as a result, rarely gets to play games. To start the project, the Grade 5 students listened to an interview with the end-user to learn more about his specific needs and range of mobility.


The intense week got even more interesting when we had a special guest visitor - a parent who is a former executive at Electronic Arts Games and helped to produce games like SimCity and Lord of the Rings - who  gave great insights into what it takes to make professional games.


Each team of Grade 5 students developed a two-player, maze-style video game that contained moving obstacles, an antagonist, spawn point, randomized game behaviors. They also designed the story and characters for the game. Each team also designed a prototype of an adaptive video game controller using a circuit board, wires and conductive touch pads. To create the adaptive controllers, students had to design with empathy and their end-user in mind. They were able to come up with a variety of innovative design solutions for the end-user which allowed for ease of play despite his disability.


Students were eager to create the perfect game and adaptive controller for the end-user. I overheard students collaborating on designs with empathy in mind and discussing ways to make the game more accessible for other people who may have physical disabilities. They were even asking me how we could help more people who might need adaptive hardware for everyday use.


Probably the best outcome of a project like this is that students are learning core curricular competencies without realizing it. While making video games, the students learned fundamental coding and math skills by creating variables, designing sprites, programming loops, and writing functions. While making the adaptive controllers, students learned the design process, how to make simple circuits and about how circuit boards interface with switches and touch-pads. This interdisciplinary approach also allowed students to express their own creativity and imagination in the design while working with others through collaboration and problem-solving.


The moment of truth


At the end of the week-long design sprint, students showed the final designs to the end-user for testing and feedback. It is safe to say that our end-user was quite thrilled and even took home his favorite design for further use and exploration. In a debrief discussion with Grade 5 students, we discussed why designing for someone else required different thinking strategies and how the outcome would have been different if the video games were designed for themselves and how defining a purpose gave context and meaning to the result of the final project.


These types of purpose-driven learning experiences are what we strive for in our STEAM program at The Harbour School, not just in my classes, but in all classes. Teachers are encouraged to imagine a different way of teaching multiple subjects through connected project ideas by collaborating with other teachers and other areas of the school like the Marine Science Center, Black Dolphin, Library and other specialist areas.

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