The State of Your Tech and Engineering Courses (Hint: They May Be Boring)

As an administrator, when was the last time you considered the state of your technology and engineering classes? Take a look at your course catalog. Your school probably offers computer science, a coding elective, an engineering-type course, and some kind of catch-all digital literacy class (yawn). Have you ever wondered why every school has courses similar to yours? Have you considered how to differentiate your electives from everyone else? Have you taken time within the last five years to evaluate whether or not they are what’s best for student learning? Are they even relevant anymore? My guess is no, they are not, not in the way we see them taught in many schools. Let me generalize here.
It is likely that most of your computer science instructors are probably teaching the personal coding language of their choice, and it’s the one with which they are most familiar. That engineering course is also taught by someone who may have worked in the industry as a fill-in-the-blank engineer, and they may even compete in an established robotics league.

Why do these classes and types of teachers remain the mainstay of many schools?

They’re Easy and Popular
These programs are easy to launch with many curriculums already written, and there is a cohort of teachers out there who all teach them. As an organization, it's easy to keep these classes churning over the years, even with turnover, since you can simply list a job opening, hire a competent teacher with previous experience, and keep the big machine that is your school running. 

You may also argue that these are popular classes with students; your kids love them and enrollment is always high. However, if you really sit down with students and ask them why they pick these classes, they often imply it’s because they sound the most interesting out of all of the options, not because it is their passion.

Survey Says: It’s Time For a Change
At Dawson, we asked students what class options they wish they had and what kinds of things they want to create. For some teachers or parents, the results would look like a nightmare list of things they don't understand or in which they don't find educational value, such as music, streaming, and (the dreaded) video games. When we see these results, however, all we see is the opportunity. We took this student feedback as a challenge to create rigorous courses that appeal to the passions of our students. 

Challenge #1: video games. We dove headfirst into video games and when we dissected it, we saw several cross-curricular applications:
  • Writing and storytelling. There is extensive creative and narrative writing in video game storylines, as well as character design and development. 
  • Art and creativity. The amount of traditional art concepts that live in the creation of characters, animation, and immersive worlds is staggering. 
  • Coding and math. Coding actions in video games not only touch upon what we see as “coding”, but it’s steeped deeply in boolean algebra.  
  • Business. All video games go through significant marketing analysis, and we haven’t even touched on the financial and business sides of the industry.
Action: We created a course that touches on all of these points, all wrapped in the lens of a video game.

Challenge #2: esports. After working with some key constituents and partnering with Allied Esports and the HyperX Esports Arena at the Luxor, we learned that the esports industry is rooted in transferable skills:
  • AV production
  • Graphic design
  • Marketing
  • Business and financial operations
  • Shoutcasting (performing arts)
  • Directing/producing  
Action: We found a gold mine of opportunity and created a rigorous course that teaches all of these aspects through the lens of esports.

When we introduced these new courses for the first time, our students were thrilled to have a class rooted in their actual passions. We saw students who had challenging experiences in other areas become leaders in this new course. We saw students who were so interested in the work that they didn’t want to leave when the bell rang. We saw frustration dissolve into pure excitement when they overcame a challenge after many failed attempts.  

In the end, we realized that all of the tech and engineering options we used to think were cutting edge and amazing were just the best of what was available at the time, not necessarily what was best for student learning. When we boiled it down to the core concepts and implementation of our old courses, we found they were very traditional and were just dressed up in a fancy tech tuxedo.  

Truthfully, we didn’t go into this thinking we were going to create a video game class that was cross-curricular, and we most certainly didn’t know what was going to happen when we stepped off the cliff, but we’re glad we did. This pushed us as individuals to take on the challenge, it pushed us ideologically, and it pushed us as an educational organization to transform our courses for our students. In the end, this opened up our eyes to how education can look in the 21st century.

By Hubert Ham
Director of Innovation & Information Services

The Alexander Dawson School

The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain, an independent school located on 33-acres in the community of Summerlin, is Nevada’s first Stanford University Challenge Success partner school for students in early childhood through grade eight. Utilizing the unique Challenge Success framework, Dawson uses research-based strategies and programs that emphasize student academics, wellbeing, and a healthy school-life balance to create more engaged, motivated, and resilient learners and leaders. At Dawson, students achieve their individual potential while savoring life and meeting the challenges of the world.