Las Vegas school blends video games with curriculum

With the help of his students, Hubert Ham put esports on the map at Alexander Dawson School. It came with a worthwhile price: learning, not just playing.

It was a bold experiment: Ask students what subject they’d like to learn about and then implement it.

So, when Hubert Ham polled his students for their input on what they wanted in their new class at the Alexander Dawson School in Las Vegas, the answer was not surprising: esports.

He forged ahead on that course but told them they would not only be gaming; they would be studying the games. And it would be “rigorous.”

A few years into that leap of faith, where the K-8 school wiped away several traditional tech courses to pave the way for esports, Ham’s program is flourishing. The new “teaching tool” has provided opportunities to learn about the fastest-growing field in the world and simulate work within it.

“We have an esports class that actually doesn’t really play the games, but follows STEM career paths related to esports,” Ham says. “We have a game design class, where one day you could walk in and they’ll be doing art. Another day, they’ll be doing math. Another day they’ll be doing writing. And then another day, they’ll be coding and creating video games. It’s just kind of steamrolled and keeps growing and growing.”

Getting esports off the ground

Ham says a scholastic plan that can be started anywhere … even with just one Nintendo Switch.

But that plan, he says, must start first with curriculum.

“A lot of schools, what I see, is they will start their esports club or competitive team and then they face these challenges,” he says. “We went the opposite way. We brought in rigorous curriculum, so it won over administration and the teachers and parents. Our parents were a lot more receptive to it because they saw the results immediately. So, when we brought in an esports team and competition, it wasn’t a concern, because they already saw the value from the educational side.”

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Prior to his work at Dawson School, where he is Director of Innovation and Information Services, Ham worked for the Texas Independent School Districts as a technology instructor and curriculum coordinator. He has seen the value of tech-based classes but views esports as the real difference-maker for today’s students and instructors.

“As an educator and administrator myself, I think it’s understanding that traditional tech classes that we see like computer science, or robotics are very narrow in scope,” Ham says. “There’s a very focused push to creating the next code or creating the next engineer, and I think that’s doing a disservice to the kids.

“The technology is going to change. The industry is going to shift on them. And you set them up for failure by doing just that. But if you can provide them exposure to a lot of those skills and other skills that they may not have heard of, I think that’s the correct way to get them involved in technology. People find that in esports now. The industry is evolving into a new a new way that we never expected 10 years ago. We don’t want them stuck in a dead end when the technology changes and they are 30 or 40 years old.”

Making the switch

To that end, Ham uses an analogy that he says proves gaming can be taught as effectively as some other methods.

“Teachers say, ‘How are you going to use this in a classroom, and I look at a Sphero. It’s a motorized rolling ball, and you figured out 100 lessons with it, right?” Ham says. “If you leverage it right, you can teach many of the standards that you can teach in a science class or English class or math class.”

Instead of traditional tech tools, Ham says starting with a Switch can be a “no-brainer” because it is accessible for even the youngest students and fits any budget.

“It has games that are competitive, leagues, Smash Brothers, Mario Kart, and so on,” Ham says. “The biggest thing that I like about it is it has friendly games for lower school kids, middle school kids, high school kids.”

Ham says for $500, which includes the Switch, a couple of games and extra pro controllers, schools can start an esports club or competition team.

“When we talk to other schools or programs we deal with, there are challenges in how to get big computers labs set up, the cost associated with it. The Switch is super low cost compared a PC setup. To get 10 rigs into an esports setup, you’re talking four or five digits.”

But the real value is in the curriculum that can be based around the games. After Ham’s students play through them, he creates one-off lessons that can be implemented in the core classroom. For example, they have math lessons based on Mario Kart statistics, and they use Old Man’s Journey for improving life choices and writing.

“We bring the Switch in and use it like an ed tech tool, like any other product you’d see out there. Instead of reading a book, it’s this. It does a little bit of everything.”

Value beyond the games

One of the neat offshoots of the program is that Dawson School also has teams that compete. They will soon be part of another of Ham’s creations – the first-ever Independent Schools Esports League, which will be comprised of middle and high school teams from private schools, boarding schools, Catholic schools and non-denominational independent schools.

Even then, Ham’s teams won’t be just playing games. They will be immersed in them.

“Our esports team not only competes, but they are the ones that actually set up tournaments on our campus,” he says. “If the kids are not competing against the school that week, they’re creating content. They’re shoutcasting, controlling the digital switcher for the video feed. They’ll put together these formal broadcasts. They basically try to put on a full show.”

During Ham’s session at the Academic Esports Conference, he will also be talking about the importance of partnerships, of leaning on others and giving back in this receptive community. Ham not only has forged relationships with several notable game makers, Allied Esports and Black Fire Innovation, but also has started his own Esports EDU Lab that serves as a professional development portal for educators. The goal is to share information relevant to experiences in esports, network and learn how to grow the space.

“No one else is going to do it if we don’t do it, so let’s get there together,” Ham says. “It’s going to help our kids. It’s going to help our teachers. It’s a win for everybody.”

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