With our third USDOE EIR grant win, we’re amplifying what we do best with middle schoolers nationally.
At Urban Arts, we’re really good at teaching computer science through game development to high school students from low-income communities. We get them into college with well-crafted digital portfolios and we launch them into careers with leading media and tech companies. We imagine a world where historically-disadvantaged young people gain economic mobility through meaningful careers as creators, thinkers, and leaders, in the creative and technology fields.
Last year, at a strategic planning meeting with our Board, we asked, “‘Can we be good at teaching computer science through our game design model across the K-12 curriculum?”
Can we do it? Sure. Can we do it well? Maybe.
Some context. We focus on high school students. While the question may seem a little silly (because the answer is, of course, yes, we can do it), it’s a question we always ask ourselves at Urban Arts because of our history.
Urban Arts was founded 32 years ago, and in the first 26, we provided a broad range of arts programs for students across the K-12 curriculum. Delivering ten different art forms spread across K-12 meant that our products were inconsistent. And we certainly couldn’t sustain all of them. It was like the circus trick—spinning plates until one eventually fell and met their fate on the floor.
So we decided to refocus and narrow our approach. And it’s in these last six years that we’ve gained the most traction and driven the most growth. We live by the motto “What you focus on, is what grows.” Focus is the keyword. While it may seem obvious, when applied in a business context it’s been a game changer for us. So while the answer to “Can we build high-quality game design programs for students K-12?” is a clear “yes,” the real question for us is “Can we do it well, without diluting or distracting our current efforts serving high school students?”
Ultimately, we decided we could. And we decided to expand to middle school. If this goes well, we said, we may well drill down and pursue elementary programming. We know the earlier you teach young people computer science, the better.
We’re fortunate at Urban Arts. We’ve won multiple awards from the US Department of Education for our research-based programs. EIR (Education, Innovation, and Research) grants are coveted awards to pilot and research leading-edge approaches to the country’s greatest educational challenges—and they are extremely hard to win. Each year the EIR competition sees hundreds of applications and only a fraction of these get funded. Our two most recent EIR grants support research on STEM education for low-income schools and underrepresented communities. Our first EIR project sunsets in June 2024.
Enter Josh Reynolds, Director of Modern Workplace at Microsoft and Urban Arts Board member. Josh is committed to scaling Urban Arts, knowing we’re a critical nonprofit that helps students develop skills for the, well, modern workplace.
Through our partnership with Unity Technologies in our Game On program, we learned that the key to our success was not to take on every single aspect of our product offering but rather to develop smart partnerships with existing platforms, develop a world-class learning experience around it, and deliver the services. When considering middle school expansion, it was a short leap from Josh to Laylah Bulman, Senior Program Manager at Minecraft Education.
Both Minecraft and Urban Arts have similar goals: we both want to provide opportunities for young people to develop their STEM identities. As Laylah says, “[Minecraft] is a powerful teaching tool that can change young people’s lives. Let’s start using it.”
Mojang Studios has built the most popular and successful game of all time, and the products they’ve created for Minecraft Education are stunning. 99% of schools in the U.S. have enterprise accounts with Microsoft. A little-known fact —if you have a Microsoft enterprise account, Minecraft Education is bundled with that, free of charge. This provides an unprecedented opportunity for us to tap into a huge market. For good.
Nationwide, states are committing to computer science education—from mandatory in-school classes to after-school clubs. In New York, districts are required to implement the K-12 NY State Computer Science and Digital Fluency Standards by September 2024. On a national stage, five states require CS coursework to graduate high school, and 27 states require schools to offer CS coursework.
Additionally, there is an evident need for more engaging computer science resources for middle school students, an age where computer science education is cited as a “vehicle for equity.” A 2020 study stressed the importance of offering middle school CS courses “to build student interest and confidence before traditionally underserved populations begin to self-select out of the subject,” yet across 17 states surveyed, only 3.9% of middle school students had enrolled in foundational computer science (Google and Gallup, 2020).
To make CS even more impactful to students and enjoyable for teachers, we level up our learning resources through a unique spin: we teach our students to make video games. Why? It is super fun, and you’re more likely to persist in learning how to code if you get to create a game at the end. Artists become technologists, and technologists become artists.
So, in rapid prototyping fashion—always my favorite—Urban Arts, Minecraft, and our research partner West Ed put together a five-year plan to develop, launch, and scale Creative Coders.
That’s the plan we submitted to the USDOE in August. And in December we were informed that we won! Now that’s the kind of news you want when about to take the holiday break. “I love how Urban Arts is leveraging EIR funding to test how game design can be used to expand access to and participation in quality computer science education for all students.” Dr. Sonji Jones-Manson, Management and Program Analyst, US DOE.
Yay for rapid prototyping, but more importantly, yay for getting the right people around the table. Over the next five years, we will partner with 70+ schools and serve 3,450 students.
I was talking with Laylah and Josh after we got the good news and I asked Laylah about the potential she sees in Creative Coders “This is the model we need to prove. We get approached all the time by organizations to partner on research,” she said. “The reason we partnered with Urban Arts is because of your approach, your track record, and your staff. This is a thing we know how to do, as do you.”
Josh added, “I’m truly excited that we can democratize the idea that you can reach out to Urban Arts now. If you want to learn through Minecraft’s Game Code you can do it now with Urban Arts. Let’s build this, and then we rinse and repeat.”