What is Pokemon Go? A Parent/Educator’s Overview


This weekend, Pokemon Go has taken the app world by storm.  Pokemon Go is an AR (augmented reality) game in which you collect monsters (Pokemon) out and about in the real world.  The game, by Niantic Labs, creators of the AR game Ingress, uses your smartphone’s GPS and data to share the location of these critters in the real world.  Look at your phone’s display.  See some rustling leaves on the sidewalk ahead?  There’s one hiding there!

As you explore, real world landmarks:  statues, memorials, churches, parks, historic markers, and the like are represented by blue icons called Pokestops.  Get close enough to it, tap it, and give it a spin to collect items to aid you on your quest to collect more Pokemon.  There are also Gyms where your Pokemon can battle those of other players.  The more you play, the more you level up and the better items and abilities you get!

pokemonchurchSo, what’s the value in this game?  It gets us out and about!  The best way to play the game is to get out, walking/jogging and exploring!  This is a great way to encourage your kids to get out of the house and play a game in the real world.  In fact, I just walked nearly four miles with my daughter as we explored our local community college, gathering resources and collecting over 25 Pokemon!  Sometimes you find Pokemon eggs.  Want to hatch them?  Put them in an incubator.  The game then requires you to walk a certain distance to get the egg to hatch.  Talk about motivation!

The more landmarks and points of interest near you, the more likely you are to find places to interact.  We live in a fairly rural community, so the local college and the downtown area are the most rewarding play areas.  If you live some distance away from an area like this, you may want to drive/bike to an area and then explore.

Only have one phone?  You and your kids can always take turns finding and capturing the Pokemon you discover.  (Hint:  Hold down the Pokeball and flick it toward the creature when the circle’s the smallest to increase your chance of catching it.)  Also, keep in mind a few things.  With music, graphics, GPS, data, and screen that stays on while you’re playing, this game will drain your battery!  (There is a low battery mode, but I haven’t tried that yet.)  For extended play, you may want to take a backup charger.  Also, though this is a fantastic way to get some exercise, it can be distracting.  Don’t forget to look where you’re walking!

pokemongoplusAt the end of this month, the Pokemon Go Plus (a wearable gadget that connects to your phone and vibrates to let you know when Pokemon are near) will be available to help you in your quest to “catch ’em all.”

Pokemon Go is a great way to connect to your kids and get outdoors for some physical activity. This is also a great game to encourage kids to research strategy, how-to’s, and the Pokemon lore.  The hype is huge right now, so why not take advantage of it?

Time for me to go and train my Bulbasaur!



IGN’s Pokemon Go Guide

Reflections on Minecraft Game Design STEM Camp

Last week, I had the honor of spending four full days with a group of talented and highly-energetic middle schoolers during the the Surry County Schools annual STEM Camp.  My camp, in particular, was Game Design in Minecraft.  Throughout the week, using Minecraft as our platform, we worked through a design process to create an original game, built on a shared server.


Form A Design Studio

Students first formed a design studio, a group of three to four student designers.  They gave their studio a name and then created a slogan.  Some of my personal favorites were:

CMT (Create. Minecraft. Technology.) – “Expect The Unexpected.”

4RandomThings – “Sometimes, all you need are 4 Random Things to make 1 GREAT thing happen…”

All of the submissions were equally creative.

Develop Story and Map The Game

From there, teams were tasked with developing a title and some basic story elements they wished to include in their game.  One group’s theme revolved around surviving a zombie apocalypse, another tasked you with finding a lost pig.  Once again, Minecraft’s flexibility really enabled students to unleash their imaginations and creativity.  Following this step, teams mapped out their overall design plans, labelling traps, puzzles, landscaping elements, and other challenges.  At this point, teams pitched their ideas to me for feedback.  Much of this dealt with the technical possibilities and limitations of MinecraftEDU.  After approval, teams logged into our shared server, selected a site for their game, marked off the borders with colored wool and signs and began building.  By far, this step was the most time consuming and most enjoyed by the student-designers.



As the part of the camp neared, we moved into a play-testing phase.  First, each team play-tested their own game, thinking critically about what was working and what needed to be changed.  A snapshot of the server was saved (to preserve traps and such), and studios played the games designed by their fellow designers.  They provided constructive, written feedback to the creators of the game they played and then we moved into an iteration/polish phase.  We spent some extra time discussing how to give and receive feedback.  “Feedback is a gift!”

Walkthroughs and Live Interview with Game Developers

The week concluded with a live walkthrough of the game facilitated by each team and ultimately a ceremony to distribute an official (physical) badge for their work with certificates.  Our last treat was a live chat with game developers at 1st Playable Productions.  The 1st Playable team shared their path leading to careers in game design, games they’ve worked on, and challenges they faced along the way.  Our student designers asked incredible questions along the way.

discoWhat worked well:

  • The design studio concept and the emphasis on team development.
  • MinecraftEDU.  The management aspects available to the teacher were invaluable.
  • Rezzly (3DGameLab) – All of the challenges (lessons?) were framed as quests.  Each one unlocking the next.  XP, ranks, and badges provided fun incentives outside of Minecraft play.
  • Playing alongside the students.
  • Taking breaks. – We periodically took breaks from our design work to work on collaborative, team-based quests in a Survival Mode server.  Spaced mid-way during the morning and afternoon design work provided fantastic brain breaks.
  • Getting feedback from students.  What did you like?  What did you not like?  What would YOU change?
  • Music during design time.  They love to sing while working.
  • Spontaneous dance party.  – Teleport all the kids to a central location, crank up the music. Dance! (or jump and crouch – best you can get in Minecraft)

What needs work:

  • Students didn’t actually get into Minecraft until the end of the first day.  That’s tough.  It’s hard for them to focus entirely on writing/drawing related to something they simply want to be playing.  Breaking the early design work up with some play and possible ways to do some of the prototyping within Minecraft might help.
  • Reminding players not to set off traps when exploring other teams’ builds.
  • Despite front-loading, some players simply can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to respecting others’ space and things in Minecraft.  They are accustomed to simply taking/using what they see and then arguing about it if there’s a conflict.  The solution?  Next time I’ll spread the teams out in the survival world.

I’m really looking forward to building on this first year prepping for next year’s camp.


Scrap Mechanic – An Engineering Sandbox of Fun

Years ago, a growing buzz in my social feed and from students kept pushing me to explore a retro-looking sandbox building game.  I ignored it as long as I could, but finally caved and tried the game.  The game was Minecraft and it had huge implications for learning.

scrapmWell, history repeats itself, though this time with considerably less resistance on my part.  Once again, my radar is getting pinged from different sources about a new game called Scrap Mechanic.  First, I’m seeing the amazing Adam Clark (aka WizardKeen) posting Let’s Play videos with the game.  Then, one of our district media coordinators contacted me saying that her son wanted to buy it and wondering if I knew anything about it.  So, I did the responsible thing… I bought it myself!  Check out the game trailer below:

After just a few moment of game play, I’m hooked and my kids are begging to play.  The game is still in an early release stage (beta), but it already seems very polished with nice graphics and ambient sounds.  The controls are intuitive and there’s a super-helpful in-game player guide reminiscent of LEGO building manuals to help you get started with your first creations.

There’s a great deal of learning potential, here, too.  The main idea of the experience, so far, is building structures and machines.  Building structures is relatively familiar territory, but the real fun is in machine building.  Unlike other sandbox games, physics plays a big role in Scrap Mechanic.  There’s gravity and other forces at work.  With engines, wheels, thrusters, and bearings, players can create everything from gas-powered cars to rocket-powered flying saucers, or if you’re so inclined, a rocket-powered flying saucer car.  Maybe you want to build a catapult to launch your friends across the world or build a transforming tree house.  These are just a few examples among many out there on YouTube.

sm-femaleCreative tinkering and trial-and-error exploration are hallmarks of the game play and those are just a couple of the reasons Scrap Mechanic has huge implications for learning.  This is a fantastic, digital maker space!  This would be a welcome addition to classrooms and media centers looking for an alternative digital space to encourage students’ creativity.  Either turn your learners loose and let them follow their own interests, or give them a challenge to help them get started!  Build a vehicle that can transport three or more crates from your shop to the warehouse.  Create a stable, rocket-powered car.  Design a machine that will fling your friends the farthest.  There are so many possibilities.  As they design students will have to wrestle with engineering challenges.  “How can I add weight to make this vehicle more stable?”  “To what angle should I set this bearing to maximize the reach of my lift arm?”

Check out this video of a group of YouTubers who’ve challenged each other to build machines to throw their friends across the map (mild language warning):

Again, this game’s in early release and the developers have more in store prior to the official launch.  You can currently purchase this game through Steam for $20 USD and it’s worth it.  I already have school media centers asking for it to use as a center for their school maker spaces which is really exciting.

Keep an eye on this one!




Teacher as the Game Master

Paper, pencil, and dice games are fundamentally simple.  Players track information for their imaginary characters using sheets that keep track of  vital numbers like health, charisma, dexterity, and strength.  With a roll of a few special dice, the outcomes of combat or encounters with story characters are determined and drive the game play forward.  Likewise the Game Master/Dungeon Master sets the backdrop, spins the initial story, spurring the players on  to adventure and uses their own dice rolls to randomize outcomes within a set of parameters.  Game sessions are engaging, imaginative, and far from canned experiences which makes them incredibly compelling.

So, what if a teacher were to take the best elements of the role of a game master to create an adventure in learning for their students?  What if that thematic unit you’d planned for October were not only immersive but also playable?  That’s the topic of one of my recent presentations.  Take a look!

Download your copy of the play-along Google Spreadsheet here!


 So, what do you think?  What tips and experiences do you have?



(Updated June 10th, 2016)

Permission to Be Silly – Permission to Engage

In my 17 years as an educator I’ve come to a conclusion.  We educators can be pretty stiff.  This, of course, isn’t always the case and there are exceptions to the rule, but sometimes we get bogged down in data-driven decision making, behavioral objective writing, assessments, and so forth.  All of those are valid and worthwhile, but sometimes we forget to let our hair down and simply be in the moment.  In fact, I fear some of us may have even forgotten how to be in the moment, cutting up and having fun.

cq-blueThe annual NCTIES Conference is an absolute highlight of my year as I have the opportunity to learn new things and connect, face-to-face, with my network.  It is also the perfect place to unleash my inner mad scientist for some fun social experiments.

You see, I think we all desire to have fun and even be a little silly from time-to-time.  However, professional conferences are rarely the place where this happens because of the aforementioned stuffiness.  [+ 5 to me for using “aforementioned”] What a missed opportunity!  Sometimes, we simply need a meaningful context to engage with others and grow our network while having a little fun in the process!

GAMEFUL THINKING to the rescue!!  Games give us a context to engage even when it’s difficult to find one.  So, last year, I created Quest Cards/Conference Quest to provide people with an excuse to have fun, meet new people, grow their network, commit random acts of kindness, and yes, act a little silly.

Conference Quest is back for #NCTIES16!  There are even new quests contributed by @ewolfhope and @kristinedwards3!  Want to play?  It’s easy.  You can play by yourself or with a group of friends.  All you need to do is download and print a set of cards for each player.  You can follow along with the #CQ and #NCTIES16 hashtags.  Will you be bold and challenge a featured speaker to an arm wrestling match or will you be the one who starts a zombie flashmob?

Download Your #NCTIES16 Conference Quest Cards Here

Update:  If you’d like your own set of blank cards to use with students or your own events, you can download them here.  Just please give attribution! Thanks!

#NCTIES15 – A Guide for First-Timers

Yes, that's me!The 2015 NCTIES is coming up next week.  I’m excited that there’s a fantastic team of educators going from Surry County Schools.  For many, this will be there first time.  I’ve gotten lots of questions about what to expect, so, I put together a pretty detailed “First-Timer’s Guide” to NCTIES.  It’s pretty detailed, so here’s a link to the Google Doc:

NCTIES 2015 – A Guide for First-Timers



It’s The Teachers That Make It EPIC

ninjaThree weeks ago, I launched the SCS EPIC Academy pilot with a group of educators in Surry County Schools.  In case you missed my last post on EPIC Academy, it’s a fully-online, game-inspired, approach to professional development.  Through a quest-based learning approach, teachers and administrators can select challenges that interest them, complete them in at a pace that’s right for them, and explore these topics to a depth of their choosing.  Follow a quest chain to its culminating “Epic Quest” and you’ll unlock an official SCS Badge.  That’s the elevator speech version, anyway.


So, what’s the response so far?  To date, 40 district educators are active in the system.  I just shared with them their collective accomplishments just a moment ago.  Together, they have:


  • Accumulated a total of 7880 XP!  (That’s 7.8 CEU’s!)
  • Completed 217 quests.
  • Acquired 91 achievements.
  • Submitted 201 quest ratings (for an average rating of 4/5 stars).
  • Shared 681 educational resources via Pinterest.
  • Discovered one ninja and her secret quest chain!
  • Unlocked 2 official SCS EPIC Academy Badges!


Beyond the numbers, however, our teachers are sharing some incredibly thoughtful reflections (especially on a game-inspired approach to learning).  Consider this reflection by one our guild members, tarheelgirl:


Considering the seductiveness of autonomy in gaming is a new thought process for me. What would it be like to set parameters and then allow students to chose a series of experiences to “test” their abilities? I am also drawn to the idea that children need to experience (really feel) success before they will be motivated to keep reaching for it. If you have never had chocolate….then you do not crave it and certainly will not walk on the treadmill to earn yourself a Hershey bar. If kids never feel academic success, then how will they know what they are striving to attain. Quick, easy success early on in acquiring a new skill could lead for more applied interest.


And, this thoughtful response from teacher_heather:


How will students learn to grow and change if they don’t learn to fail first?  I couldn’t help but think of when I used to play Mario as a kid.  I remember I would get so angry if I didn’t get past Bowzer to rescue the Princess.  I would take note on what I did wrong, fix it, and finally rescue the Princess!  Of course after hours of playing, I would get bored and voila!  I would find a secret tunnel that would lead to another land and find a few hidden treasures along the way.  If we give kids something to work towards through gaming, mixing math, science, etc. along the way and let them know that failing is okay, they would be more willing to do their best.  I would have to say the same for teacher’s professional development.


To say I am proud to be working alongside such professionals would be an understatement.


sortinghSo, what else is going on?  I am encouraging players to set personal goals for themselves this week and gave them some examples:  “I’m going to reach 300XP by week’s end.”  “I’m going to unlock my first badge this week.”  “I’m going to write a new blog post tonight.”  I’ve also challenged them to explore ways that we can use 3DGameLab’s newest feature, Teams.  Personally, I keep going back to Hogwarts, there.  I just need a sorting hat.


Lastly, the secret quest series.  To date, one player, iluveducating, has discovered the ninja, and has embarked on her quest to find the three hidden keys.  As a “game designer” (yes, air quotes, there… term used very loosely), I’m torn between dropping serious hints, and simply letting it unfold over time.  I’m leaning toward the latter, though it’s taking self-discipline!


In March, I’ll be presenting the pilot for the first time to our Board of Education and will also be doing a session at NCTIES 2015!  Stay tuned!



EPIC Teaching Academy

Most of my past projects have focused on leveraging games and gamification in the K-12 classroom with students, however, a project specifically for teachers is long overdue.  EPIC Teaching Academy, turns the attention to educators and their professional development.  Though, I’ve tossed these ideas around for awhile and even built a loose framework, my new district, Surry County Schools, is truly the right-place, right-time to launch this project.  There’s been incredible support.

The EPIC Guild BannerSo, what is EPIC?  It’s really the result of some conversations and observations over the past several years in my primary role as a provider of teacher professional development.  The catalyst was a conversation two years ago at EdCamp Raleigh.  There, a group of educators from across the state including Bill Ferriter (@plugusin), Bethany Smith (@bethanyvsmith), and many others talked about what we, as educators dislike about professional development and what we really want in  our PD.  It was an incredible conversation, as most are at EdCamps.

Of course, I have my niche passions within the education arena, so instantly began to see opportunities to leverage a playful, game-like approach as a solution to many of the problems the group had with typical professional development.

EPIC Teaching Academy is program I’m developing, using 3DGameLab as a platform, that will offer players (yes, players) the opportunity to explore professional development topics of their choice to a depth of their choice.  These learning quests will increase in complexity and commitment as players progress through successive quests as they progress toward unlocking an official badge showing their mastery of a particular topic.  These badges can be shared through the educator’s website, social media, and/or badging system like Mozilla’s Backpack.

Of course, my ultimate goal is to move beyond simple gamification toward truly game-like experiences.  Perhaps a hidden Easter Egg (a la Ready Player One)?  Perhaps we’ll divide schools into teams like a local Hogwarts to host some fun, competitive learning experiences?  Likewise, a hope is that our educators, through this experience, will gain a greater understanding of the merits of an approach like this, ultimately paving the way for student badging.  Here, my friend, Dr. Bron Stuckey (@bronst), has offered some great starters and inspiration!

Tomorrow I’ll begin recruiting district teachers to participate in a pilot beginning in February.  Along the way, I hope to collect some data, pre- and post-, of their attitudes toward professional development overall and of the EPIC experience.

Here’s a presentation that I’ll be sharing that explains the program in a bit more detail:


 Time for some fun!


UPDATE (2/2/15):  The pilot launched today!!  Out of 50 available slots, 47 were filled.  There are a good mix of elementary, middle, and high school teachers along with media specialists, administrators, counselors, and others.  40+ quests are available to our teachers at launch and two official badges:  one for Twitter as a tool for growing your PLN and one for professional blogging.  There are 30+ Achievements and numerous Awards, too.  In total, nearly 2.0 CEU’s worth of content is out there for them to explore.  Lastly, yes, I was able to develop a hidden game-with-the-game with clues and activities hidden throughout!  More updates to come as we move forward!



Wow!  I’m embarassed that it’s taken me this long to update my blog.  As some of you know, I’ve experienced some pretty major life changes of the past several months.  In August I took a position as Director of Academic and Digital Learning (Cool title, huh?) with Surry County Schools, the school district in the home town where I grew up.  This change also resulted in I and my awesome (and supportive) family moving across the state!  We’ve finally settled into a home and have truly hit the ground running!  God has opened some incredible doors, is providing awesome opportunities, and is forging new relationships for us.  It’s pretty incredible.


Want to Take Your Students to Saturn? Strap on The Oculus Rift!

riftdk1For over a year, now, I’ve been following the development of and talking to educators about a piece of technology, that, in my view, could have a huge impact on learning experiences for our students.  It’s the Oculus Rift.  The Oculus Rift is a head-mounted virtual reality display that provides a stereoscopic, 110 degree field of view with responsive head-tracking.  In other words, you put this thing on, and you’re looking around inside a digital world.  Of course, virtual reality has been the promise of science fiction for years, from Star Trek’s holodecks to The Matrix.  Despite previous efforts in years past, the technology simply couldn’t deliver on science fiction’s vision for virtual reality.

All that’s changing, today, though, as technological advances in display capabilities, coupled with motion sensing, and of course, faster computers with better graphics, are making the dream of immersive digital experiences a reality.  Though marketed primarily as a gaming device (and what an awesome gaming peripheral!), I believe the Rift holds some pretty awesome potential in the classroom.oculus-bms

For several months, now, I’ve been talking about the technology and the ways I think it could impact learning.  For example, imagine taking students in a virtual time machine back to ancient Egypt at the height of its glory.  As you walk with them through busy streets and markets, filled with the sights and sounds of the time, imagine that your tour is interrupted by characters (played by others in this multiplayer experience) who sweep you and your students up in a playable (and educational) mystery adventure!  Remember the 60’s flick, Fantastic Voyage, in which a team of doctors enter a spaceship and are shrunk to microscopic scale and explore a man’s body?  Wouldn’t it be great to take your Anatomy class inside the eye or the brain?  Better yet, imagine a set of tools that would allow your students to easily build and prototype models and concepts and to experience (and share) them in an immersive 3D world? As described in this article, some developers are already looking at the Rift’s potential in education, and that’s exciting!

Flying through space with the Oculus RiftThe technology is on our doorstep and I suspect will be mainstream within five years.  Rumors are flying regarding when the Oculus Rift will be released in a consumer model, but it’s already possible to purchase a developer kit.  After riding the fence for months wondering whether to wait for the consumer version or buy a developer kit, I finally decided to take the plunge and it arrived this week.  Within minutes I was exploring a cozy home in Tuscany and moments later, flying through the solar system in the Titans of Space demo.  I even explored one of our Minecraft servers with a version of Minecraft (called, Minecrift) and walked amongst our students’ creations.  The technology is amazing.  But, I’m a fan-boy and a geek, so I had to see if my non-gamer co-workers would react the way I did.  I fired up Titans of Space and called them down to my office.  The response was unanimous, “Oh…. WOW!  Oh…. This is amazing!!”  The next day I took it out to one of our schools and let a science teacher try the same demo.  “My students need to have this experience.  This is incredible!”

So, how long until we have these in the classroom?  Let’s look at some barriers.  The better your graphics card and processor, the better experience you’ll have.  Most of our classroom computers aren’t powerful enough to support the Rift, at least not with fluid frame rates.  For a classroom implementation in the next year or so, I’d suggest a station-based approach in which three or four Rifts are paired with powerful desktops or perhaps a strong gaming laptop.  (Our WoWinSchool Alienwares could handle some of the low-end demos fine.)  Another issue, though one that the developers are likely to overcome in the consumer version, relates to the seemingly imperceptible differences in the time it takes between your head’s movement and the display’s updated image response.  With prolonged use this can cause what’s been dubbed VR sickness, a queasy, dizziness akin to motion sickness.  As one of my co-workers, who rode one of the virtual roller coasters can attest, it’s very real!

Today, I’m not the only Oculus Rift fan in the district.  Everyone who’s experienced it has had a similar response. Experiencing the immersion, educators are quickly making the connections to learning.  The four walls of the classroom are less of a barrier than ever!