Engaging Students Through Entertainment Technology

At Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence we always strive to provide educators with valuable resources that will help their schools become better and more effective. In working with schools all around the country we’ve experienced countless success stories that provide us with some amazing information to overcome specific obstacles that we may encounter in our schools.

One great example of this is the story of Huntsville Middle School where they learned to engage student through Entertainment Technology. There is so much to learn from their experience that we thought it would be great to share their best practices with you.

Below you’ll find a best practices outline of what Aaron King, principle of Huntsville Middle School, has found out as they embarked on a journey to engage students in an area that was new to them. 


Engaging Students Through Entertainment Technology | by Aaron King

At Huntsville Middle School we learned that a large component of our student population was interested in video game design, video editing, web design, robotics and music editing.

What started as a video gaming club quickly turned into a discussion around a career academy for the Huntsville High feeder pattern. Through the Blue Ribbon process we learned about what our students want and expect of us. From decisions, surveys and focus groups we started a movement to seek out a curriculum focused on Entertainment Technology.

The Huntsville High Feeder pattern, led by Huntsville Middle and Blossomwood Elementary, researched schools around the country, even taking a series of trips, learned of a wide variety of programs. We then worked together as a feeder pattern to define our career academy, identify the classes at the elementary, middle school, and high school and then vertically and horizontally align the curriculum.

What we found out

We found that our students are bored with traditional methods of learning. We also learned our students have a lot of varied interests. Keeping these two things in mind we were tasked with developing an identify for the Huntsville High feeder pattern.

Through our career academy we engage students through technology. We found that students truly enjoy video games. We then took that a step further to peel back the coding, math and science of video games. Students in that class learn how video games are designed, created, and produced. 0 Students showed the same interest in video production. We decided to combine that interest with topics focusing on science, social studies and English.

We essentially made learning relevant to the students again. They now learn because it's fun, and it will help them with the development of their video game, video, website, robot, etc.

Our goal was to provide all of our students with tangible skills translatable to college and a career, through means that they found engaging and rewarding.

Education is more about learning than it is about teaching. The focus is on the students and what they need in order to be successful. Our students are digital natives. We don't want them to leave their digital world in the morning and step into a museum; we want our school to be where they come to see, use and learn the most advanced technology available.

What we did

Before anything can proceed beyond the dream stage the school leadership must work with the Superintendent to gain trust as well as funding. We have roughly 6,000 students in our feeder pattern. In order to provide them all with opportunities in a tech rich program such as the one we discussed, we soon learned that this would cost us roughly $150 per student per year, or $1 Million per year. That would be a little less than 1% of the district's total budget. This was no small sale.

In order to implement a program focused on delivering core curriculum to students using entertainment technologies such as video game design, web design, video production, robotics and music technology, the school must do the following:

Step 1 - SURVEY: Identify the needs of the students and their families. Before starting a program like we did you first need to know if it is needed and wanted, and then whether it will be accepted. We had to extensively survey our students, parents and community members to understand their desires for our school's mission. From that mission we created a vision and strategic goals.

Step 2 - RESEARCH: Once we identified the need for a program which focused on providing students with a challenging technical curriculum we then had to learn about the best practices of other schools, we had to research. We visited dozens of schools, talked with a wide variety of industry professionals. We took trips with teachers, counselors and administrators to visit school leaders to hear about their programs. We wanted to know how they determined which classes to teach, how they found the curriculum and how they trained their teachers.

STEP 3 - DEVELOP INDUSTRY PARTNERSHIPS: Being in Huntsville we were fortunate. We have the highest number of engineers per capita in the entire world. The confluence of technology companies, specifically those that develop video games and apps is remarkable. We also have three TV news stations, four if you count the one our district has for our own news. We

decided to partner with Redstone Arsenal's AMRDEC (Aviation &Missile Research & Engineering Center). They have a subsection that develops the Army Game, which was at one time the world’s largest online video game. We also partnered with AEGIS, a company that develops video games and applications, as well as Curse, the company that produces Minecraft and World of Warcraft.

Step 4 - SELECT A PROGRAM: After working with the good people at Carnegie Melon in Pittsburgh, PA and the amazing administrators and teachers of Elizabet h Forward School district in Pittsburgh, PA we elected to go with the Zulama Technology Curriculum in our High School. The the Zulama curriculum is well thought-out and follows a meaningful path from course to course. It contains base courses in the 9th grade, specialized courses in the 10th grade, a project-based course in the 11th grade and an internship opportunity in the 12th grade. From those courses we determined the skills needed at the middle school level and developed courses around those needs. The elementary schools then developed programs to provide students with the skills to be successful at the middle school level.

STEP 5 - IDENTIFY THE COURSES: At our middle school we decided to teach the following courses: 6th Grade - Music Technology / Intro to Robotics, 7th Grade - Video Game Design, Graphic Art, 8th Grade - Video Production, Web Design and Evolution of Games.

STEP 6 - HIRE THE RIGHT TEACHERS: The success of such a program comes down to one key thing, having the right person teaching the course(s). We knew this going into our project of developing this program. We hired people based upon their creativity, their passion and their love of children. Our philosophy is that we can train for skill, but we hire for heart.

STEP 7 - DEVELOP THE CURRICULUM: We worked with our district office, specifically our Secondary Programs Department. They were able to write a grant which provided us with funding for a technology company to help us write the curriculum for the courses that Zulama did not provide curriculum for, such as Robotics, Web Design and Music Technology.

STEP 8 - CONTINUOUSLY LEARN: The world of technology is rapidly changing and always will. If you do not stay in front of it then you will be as irrelevant as before you started. It's important to constantly ask questions, work together with you feeder schools and the high school. Vertical and horizontal team meetings are crucial to success. If one elementary is doing something completely different than another elementary that feeds into the same middle school then the program can suffer.


This is our first year implementing the Entertainment Technology Academy, but we already see improvements in student motivation and engagement. Our indicators for success are as follows:

1) Increases in Attendance
2) Decreases in Disciplinary Infractions
3) Increases in Reading, Math and Science Scores as measured by STAR Enterprise, Schoolnet Benchmark Testing and ASPIRE End of Course Testing.

Tips for Success

1) We cannot reiterate how important it is to listen to the students, teachers and parents. So many times a program comes about and is forced upon a school community. Rather than do that the school leadership should listen to the stakeholders.

2) Do your due diligence. Research your options carefully based upon your student population. A program that we are using might be great for our students, but may fail horribly at your school. For instance we have laptops for all students. Our students work in a digital environment. We have no text books, they are all online. Our students are accustomed to working digitally. If your culture is not accustomed to that then they may need a stepping stone to get to that point.

3) Develop relationships with industry professionals and ask lots of questions. They know their field, how it is changing and where it is going. Don't prepare for 2014 because your program will look like 2014 forevermore. Prepare your program for constant re-evaluation and change. You need to be flexible and adaptable.

4) Hire the best and train them to be better. Teachers have big hearts and you need creative, talented team members who can take a concept and run with it. They will then own the program, run the training, and do the research to make it better. You need them to be the work horses that make your program run well.

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