Pioneering teacher wants virtual worlds to lead to real careers for students
Yongpradit uses video games not just to retrieve knowledge, but create it
Tim Hyon's mission March 14 was to deliver badly needed medicine to a pregnant woman. He had to dodge an armed uprising, use his memory to grab the right pills from the hospital, and purchase gas with his smart phone for a newly acquired ambulance.
Hyon may sound like Indiana Jones volunteering for the Red Cross, but in fact his adventure was taking place on his laptop's screen. It was in the form of a video game that he had worked on since the start of the school year with two other junior classmates at Springbrook High School.
Their computer science teacher, Pat Yongpradit, isn't scolding his charges for messing around during class; he's offering them advice. They are his advanced computer science students, and designing the game is their assignment, using Microsoft C# and other software development tools.
"It's a video game for a social cause," Hyon explained.
Using the United Nations Millennium Development Goals as their guide, Hyon, Patrick Lehan and Darren Tong are highlighting issues surrounding maternal health in the developing world. Nearby, another student, Ramsey Khadder, worked on his game that involves a character trying to control pollution levels.
Yongpradit has created a digital learning environment where students don't simply use computers to look up facts and figures. They confront or create problems to solve, and then use not just their software knowledge but their ability to craft interesting environments and find solutions within them. He designs his curriculum and projects to show students how they can translate their electronic lives on cell phones, computers and video games into knowledge, skills, and a career.
"They're not just end users," explained Yongpradit, himself a graduate of Montgomery Blair High School's magnet program in science, math and computer science. "It's kind of like a literacy."
Students such as Hyon had to make their games realistic as well as enjoyable. If Hyon were to drive recklessly through the pixelated mass of armed militants, for example, he would lose precious time and waste gas. At another point, when he speeds across town to get water, he discovers the underground pipe is broken and has just a few minutes to fix it.
Many politicians and educators now stress the importance of producing more students and graduates in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines to fill future jobs. Companies like Microsoft and Lockheed Martin are supporting Yongpradit's work in several ways.
In its projections for 2008-2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employment for computer software engineers and programmers would increase 21 percent through 2018, and that 295,000 new jobs would be created for software engineers. The increase would make the profession one of the fastest-growing in the country.
During tweaks to the maternal issues game, one of Hyon's partners, Patrick Lehan, conceded that some of his voiceover work could be improved. Hyon's group, along with three other teams in Yongpradit's class, was supposed to enter its game in a national competition, called the Imagine Cup, based on the U.N. Millennium goals and hosted by Microsoft.
The four groups submitted their game designs on time, but Yongpradit said Tuesday that they failed to make the finals of the Imagine Cup. The competition accepts entries from college students as well.
Yongpradit also has overseen the creation of the Women in Technology Club at Springbrook, with 30 members. Last year, the club helped to double the retention of female students in Advanced Placement computer science from the previous year.
"I didn't know anything about programming," said one of the club's co-presidents, junior Sydney Harmon, about her software experience prior to Springbrook.
Another part of Yongpradit's broader mission is to raise computer science's profile within the STEM community itself. He also wants to get Montgomery County Public Schools to treat computer science courses like core courses, not vocational classes or electives.
"We should be a science just as much as biology," he said.
For homework in one of his March 14 introductory classes, Yongpradit asked students to create a character on a social networking site, InterroBang, which asks students to team up and solve real-world problems in a gaming environment.
At one point, he mimicked the Facebook experience of many teens by asking one of his students on InterroBang to be his friend, then expressed anxiety over whether his request would be accepted. That drew a few laughs.
The textbooks in Yongpradit's class, meanwhile, sit on a stool at the front of the class, untouched.