How One District Takes STEM Learning to the Next Level

This is part of a three-article series covering key principles to consider when building out computer science programs in your academic setting. Read the other articles here and here.

At the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), one of the largest and most diverse school districts in the United States, we constantly plan new educational programs, prioritizing equitable access and ensuring students graduate prepared for success in college, career and life. Innovative STEM programming requires a willingness to adopt emerging tools and technologies, as well as methodologies like project-based learning.

This year, our Instructional Technology Initiative (ITI) team sought new ways to engage our students in STEM and digital literacy, specifically to help meet district goals in computer science and digital citizenship. For the past four years, applied learning pedagogies, including digital tools like game-based platforms, have been explored within LAUSD to build math, literacy and social-emotional learning competencies using applied learning pedagogy. We saw an opportunity to use Minecraft Education as a project-based learning tool in computer science, which is how Level Up Los Angeles was born.

Level Up Los Angeles represents an inclusive, districtwide initiative aimed at integrating esports into educational contexts, utilizing platforms that support collaborative and creative learning. Esports offers incredible benefits for student engagement, community and skill building, and pathways to higher education and job opportunities. In the United States, there are over 15,000 esports teams in K-12 schools, and many esports teams and programs emphasize access to students with disabilities. When you bring esports into the classroom, there’s evidence of better learning outcomes in STEM and even attendance. Selecting a collaborative and nonviolent platform for introducing esports into the curriculum can stimulate creativity and teamwork among students, as evidenced by our choice to employ game-based learning tools for creative competitions.

Building a New STEM Esports Program

We started by creating a shared vision of this program that is aligned with the district’s strategic plan, instructional priorities and commitment to computer science education for all students. We knew Minecraft Education was already supporting our instructional priorities, including SEL, literacy and numeracy, but we wanted to build a program that engaged all students in real-world problem-solving with computer science. So, we incorporated principles like Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to ensure cultural relevancy and inclusivity, created project prompts around climate change and mental well-being and designed professional learning and curriculum supports to emphasize our district’s priorities. This principled approach allowed us to develop an innovative and inclusive esports program that has led to not only student outcomes but also national recognition for LAUSD.

To support educators in integrating digital learning tools, such as Minecraft Education, into their instruction, LAUSD created a Skill Builder series that trained teachers on integrating Minecraft esports into SEL, literacy and numeracy. The series concluded with a “Getting Started” session, where teachers were introduced to the game’s mechanics and the educator and student guides for participation.

The trailer for Level Up Los Angeles 2023-2024

Applied Learning Across the Curriculum

Level Up Los Angeles incorporates the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals into the curriculum, offering students a meaningful experience related to issues they personally experience. Students addressed their own climate anxiety by applying their research skills in designing climate solutions and writing defending arguments to local politicians.

To meet our literacy requirements, we ensured that storytelling elements, writing activities and reading comprehension tasks were embedded in students’ projects. This required students to not only read instructions but also to analyze information and synthesize research to communicate their ideas effectively. For numeracy, students apply measurement and geometry in measuring distances, and they write code in Minecraft Education to connect math concepts such as area, perimeter and volume, which are otherwise very difficult to express in a traditional format.

We found that grouping students into small groups for instruction, discussions, collaboration on tasks, solving problems and building structures brought to life our LAUSD student code of conduct. Students who are struggling or having challenges in core instruction often thrive when they can learn with Minecraft, and we saw several teams of students flourish despite facing challenges elsewhere in the school day.

Reflecting on Core Principles for Program Thriving

As we built the Level Up program, we kept in mind these core concepts, which proved to be effective in keeping our team aligned with our purpose and vision:

  • Have a clear vision for curriculum integration: We started with a clear purpose for integrating esports and STEM into the curriculum and aligned this vision with LAUSD’s goals and standards. This included how we saw Minecraft Education being used as a learning platform.
  • Prioritize professional learning for teachers: Provide multiple and varied opportunities for teachers to build their skills and confidence in using Minecraft Education and esports as instructional tools. Create a supportive and collaborative community of practice among district teachers, students, and stakeholders, and leverage their feedback and input.
  • Design for diverse learners: We designed Level Up Los Angeles, focusing on UDL principles. By providing multiple ways to represent content, engaging students in design challenges that cater to their different interests, motivations and learning styles, and allowing students to express themselves creatively, Minecraft Education can be a powerful tool for reaching all learners.
  • Emphasize real-world application: Make connections to real-world issues and events relatable to students to create cultural relevancy and empower students with agency and voice. Celebrate and showcase students’ achievements and learning outcomes.

There were over 16,000 hours of gameplay in the Level Up Los Angeles Minecraft world, and we received 287 submissions from more than 1,100 students. Minecraft and esports continue to serve as a vehicle for designing standards-based projects, assignments and activities that promote exploration, inquiry and active learning. Encouraging students to apply research skills, analyze information and communicate their ideas helps them develop the skills they need to succeed in college, career and life.

By aligning Minecraft Education with our instructional priorities, providing opportunities for both professional learning and differentiated instruction, and emphasizing real-world problem solving through a districtwide esports competition, we were able to “level up” student outcomes for a truly impactful program. We encourage other school districts to take the leap and explore ways to bring innovative programming like Level Up to their communities to build skills and prepare students to be the changemakers our world needs!

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