The Connected Learning Lab Explores New Ways to Support Youth Development

January 23, 2020

Can a game about Hall of Fame football players encourage self-reflection in teens? Can a game-design competition built around artifacts in a museum lead to increased youth civic engagement? These are questions UCI’s Connected Learning Lab (CLL) is exploring in two new multiorganizational, multidisciplinary projects aimed at supporting youth development and community engagement through game-based programs.

“Both projects are centered around the connections for wellness theme that is developing within the CLL,” says Informatics Professor and CLL faculty member Katie Salen Tekinbaş, whose research resides at the intersection of game design and learning. Salen Tekinbaş is leading the CLL’s involvement in the two projects — one titled “Challenge of the Hall: Support Youth in Developing Intellectual Humility,” and the other, “Game Plan: Building the Capacity of Museum Education Programs with Game Design.”

Youth-Initiated Mentoring
The “Challenge of the Hall” project is a collaboration between the CLL and USC’s Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education (Center EDGE), USC Games, and Professor Ed Bowers of Clemson University. The work is being supported with a $78,600 technology innovation grant from the Templeton Foundation and is part of a larger project involving the design of a multilayered digital platform called Challenge of the Hall (CotH), which aims to tie together players from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“What we proposed is a piece of the much larger CotH vision — and that piece is called youth-initiated mentoring,” explains Salen Tekinbaş. The yearlong project to develop a paper prototype is still in the very early stages, but the idea is to build on stories of Hall of Fame football players in developing an activity that encourages kids to recognize role models and mentors in their own lives. “We’re trying to tap into the stories of all these great athletes around how they persevered in times of trouble and who their role models were,” says Salen Tekinbaş, “and ultimately have kids nominate people from their own lives into personal Halls of Fame, sharing that information and ‘leveling up’ around their ability to recognize and learn from their mentors.”

The desire to connect everyday lives with those of NFL players stems from research into mentoring (such as the Affinity Project study), which has shown the significance of shared interests. “When you can connect with a kid around a shared interest, it can be transformative,” explains Salen Tekinbaş. “It’s about trying to meet kids where they are, and there are lots of kids who are interested in football and who look up to athletes.” In fact, she says that at a kick-off conference for the Templeton grantees, a group from Alabama working with minoritized youth approached her. “They said the kids they work with would be so interested in this because there are pro football players who came from their neighborhoods.”

By sharing stories of pro athletes — the challenges they overcame and mentors who helped along the way — the goal is to encourage kids to reflect on their own ability to persevere and to consider who they themselves turn to for support. In addition, while the initial focus is on football, Salen Tekinbaş notes that the idea is to develop a generic mentoring platform that could adapt to any sport or interest.

“It’s really about kids recognizing mentors in their lives through a set of game-like activities that help them reflect on how they themselves develop courage and wisdom,” she says.

Games for Change in Museums
Partnering with Games for Change (G4C), the CLL is also working on the “Game Plan” project, awarded grants totaling $500,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and a matching grant from General Motors.

For years, the nonprofit G4C organization has been running the Student Challenge, a game-design competition in Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York that combines students’ passion for games with digital learning and civic engagement. Currently, various after-school programs provide middle- and high-school students, especially those from low-income families, with the resources necessary to design a game to enter into the competition. “They have this robust program, but they’re at a point where they want to refine the curriculum and look at how they could expand it,” says Salen Tekinbaş. “So the project aims to take the national game design challenge as a starting point and [move it] into the museum context.”

In a museum, the support programs might take the form of a summer camp or weekend course. “It’s a bit of a translation project,” admits Salen Tekinbaş. “How would this look different in the context of a museum, with games made in response to the collections?” The first year of the project will focus on developing two pilot projects, one in Los Angeles and one in New York. In the second year, the program will expand to museums in Atlanta and Detroit as well as to one in a new, fifth city.

CLL students and faculty will be responsible for conducting a formative evaluation of the pilots in year one. CLL members will interview the kids and educators involved to help inform the program design, identifying what is working it terms of providing kids with the space, resources and expertise needed to not only develop a game but to also achieve certain learning outcomes in the process.

“We want them thinking about social issues,” says Salen Tekinbaş, “and finding their voice as a producer in the making of these games.”

Shani Murray