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Changing the Game in Education

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Above: C:/DAGS seniors combine art, architecture and technical know-how to design installation exhibits promoting water conservation.

by Samuel Gilstrap, Dec. 6, 2019

SOUTH LOS ANGELES – A young and unique school, the Critical Design and Gaming School (C:\DAGS) at Augustus Hawkins High teaches students college-preparatory humanities, math and sciences through the mindset of gamers, game designers, engineers and those seeking the skills and imagination to create and develop virtual worlds. As one of three high schools sharing the Hawkins campus, C:\DAGS began as the vision of forward-thinking educators shaped by a community with dreams for their children’s future. 

"We are changing the game in South Los Angeles," said Principal Patricia Hanson. "C:\DAGS’ commitment to innovation and excellence has pushed us to be a new STEM and STEAM hub in the South Los Angeles community."

Hanson was among the founding educators who developed the concept for the three schools that now comprise Hawkins High, which includes C:\DAGS' sister schools Community Health Advocates School (CHAS), focusing on social work and community health advocacy, and the Responsible Indigenous Social Entrepreneurship (RISE) school of business. When plans for Hawkins were underway, Hanson and other pioneering educators held community forums, polled students and walked door-to-door in surrounding neighborhoods to determine the themes the community wanted for their school.

"We worked alongside the community to create something that was new in the educational landscape of the area," Hanson said. "As we canvassed the community, we heard consistently from parents and grandparents that when they were young, schools offered classes such as woodworking and metal shop that helped them get jobs when they graduated."

Acknowledging the world has changed, members of the community wanted a school where career preparation was a key component. In that context, the vision for C:\DAGS was born.

Now in its eighth year, the school provides a college-preparatory curriculum in humanities, math and sciences along with course sequences in gaming design, engineering, computer programming, and others technical skills promoting the innovation, creativity and spatial analysis needed to develop and understand digital, virtual worlds.

"There is so much complexity that goes into designing virtual worlds that function intelligently and are engaging," Hanson said. "Students are taught to recognize and utilize the mindset of a gamer, which they already possess, understanding how we interact with our world, overcoming obstacles and learning through trial and error. It involves STEM fields, of course, but also the humanities — learning to read, speak and understand language effectively and the social science aspects of designing and shaping environments. These are habits of mind that they can apply whether they choose to be a nurse, a psychologist, an architect or any number of careers that don't yet exist."

As a Linked Learning school, C:\DAGS brings together rigorous, college-preparatory instruction and critical thinking with industry-focused, real-world technical training in career pathways in one of multiple industry sectors. The nationally recognized approach includes ongoing collaboration with professionals in the the industries they are focused on along with individualized student supports.

"Bringing Linked Learning to C:\DAGS really solidified the unique pathway that was developed for the school at its inception," instructional coach Matthew Piwowarczyk said. "It's baked into our name: critical design and gaming."

A critical component of C:\DAGS and all Linked Learning pathways is providing students opportunities to learn in the contexts of the professional environments their pathways prepare them for.

"This presented us with a unique challenge," Piwowarczyk said. "For schools with pathways in the biomedical sciences for instance, there are usually hospitals or medical clinics within reach so students can easily travel to and participate in internships in that sector. For our school we currently don’t have software engineering or architectural studios in close proximity where students could go and work in a gaming-design environment, so we had to find creative solutions and lean a lot on our partners in order to bring this world into the school.”

Many students are able to participate in remote internships in which they check in virtually using video chat apps. The school has also brought in an expert in design thinking and critical design, Magalis Martinez, who holds an internship for seniors several times a week right on campus. She is working closely with 16 seniors on immersive installation projects that combine technology and the arts to explore human relationships with water. Their work will be on exhibit later this year in New York City.

"The students are engaged in an interdisciplinary investigation of water that encourages an exploration of the relationship between people and water through art and design," Martinez explained. "This promotes a key aspect of Learning Theory: that we learn to experience and understand our world through building. And, It's a way to help students use a concept called materiality, finding ways to take a variety of materials to bring their visions to life."

Martinez was also instrumental in developing a unique learning space at the school known as the Imagination Lab, equipped with emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, projection mapping, an Adobe multimedia production studio and 3-D printers.

"The Imagination Lab is part maker lab, part art and design studio and uses elements from the MIT Media Lab and the Art Center College of Design," she said. "It is an immersive, experiential and programmable learning space that is driven by the creative passion, imagination and ingenuity of the students."

While the Imagination Lab is used to full effect by the interning seniors, Piwowarczyk pointed out that it's also used by faculty and students throughout the school, in some cases for projects for a language arts or science class, and in some cases for students to work independently on grade-level portfolios, which they must defend to a panel of critics to advance toward graduation — another key tenant of the Linked Learning approach.

Hanson says the extent to which students take the skill sna dknowledge they acquire into realms beyond the classroom speaks their intrinsic desire to learn and grow in their fields.

"A huge component of C:\DAGS is student access to clubs and extracurriculars," she said. "Currently one out of every five C:\DAGS students is in an AP class as we proudly offer AP classes in every subject area starting in the 9th grade. Our MESA program was awarded recently by USC as being the Most Active MESA club in the region. We also have a branch of our MESA team called the ‘SHPEtinas,’ which is an all-female club engaging in engineering and robotics activities throughout the year. They have organized events on campus to bring professional female STEM leaders to our campus to empower our female students to pursue STEM careers. We also proudly have a Girls Build team set to compete in a year long program to engage in STEM challenges. Other clubs unique to our school include the C:\DAGS Student Leadership club known as the Game Changers, Game Developers Club, Dungeons and Dragons Club, Afro-Futurists Writers Room, Magic the Gathering and Chess Club, all of which show how our students take their interests in Critical Design and Gaming to new levels outside of the classroom.”

In addition to defending their portfolios, the school provides dual enrollment through West Los Angeles College, in which students have the opportunity to earn college credits and an industry approved certification in Mobile App Design while working towards their high school diploma. Hanson says that students are coming in more excited and prepared than ever due to the great work happening in neighboring local elementary and middle schools. 

“We are thrilled to be a part of a true STEM/STEAM educational pipeline in South L.A. as more and more STEAM efforts are taking place at our local elementary and middle schools where Hawkins draws incoming students,” she said. "Budlong Avenue Elementary, 52nd Street Elementary and Muir Middle School are cultivating student passion for STEM/STEAM through new pathways, clubs and course offerings. Their principals and teachers are inspiring us to continue to innovate as we need to ensure we are ready to meet the expectations of our future students.”

The elementary and middle schools have robotics teams they bring monthly to Hawkins to compete in regional VEX Robotics Tournament. Muir Middle School, from where many Hawkins students matriculate, initiated an Information and Communication Technology Career Technical Education pathway that connects directly to C:\DAGS. As a result, C:\DAGS now offers AP computer science to incoming freshmen, as they are starting high school at advanced levels of computer science preparation and engagement.

"The pipeline of rigorous academics connected to hands-on learning in STEM and STEAM is occurring in the early grades," she said. "And it is our role to connect students to our local college programs such as USC, UCLA, Cal State Los Angeles, West Los Angeles College and to the regional industry leaders such as Nickelodeon, Riot Games, Northrop Grumman and smaller game and design firms so our students know all their options for potential employment after college."

Due to its efforts in recent years, the school is among the first in the nation to be recognized by the Linked Learning Alliance as gold certified for "going above and beyond in taking bold steps that better prepare students for the rigors of both college and career."

To bring Linked Learning pathways to life requires a groundswell of support from the community surrounding the school and a faculty committed to participating in specialized professional development and the types of close partnerships with industry professionals as those working closely with C:\DAGS.

"I think our success is all about how hard our staff has worked to really make this a reality," Hanson said. "Having a gaming school in South Los Angeles with such a rigorous program is a reality because the teachers, counselors and everyone on staff believes our students deserve the best, they believe in what our school can do and are doing the work to connect with families and the community. None of this would be possible without this exemplary level of commitment and collaboration from C:\DAGS staff, they are the true Game Changers. We are proud of the South Los Angeles institution we've become and excited about how much we'll be sure to grow in the years to come."