Kyrene School District community education manager Pete Flocken and program coordinator Jen Biddison display three of the award-winning arcade games that students made for the STEMtramural.
Kimberly Carrillo/AFN Photographer

Who said learning can’t be fun?

It sure wasn’t Pete Flocken, Kyrene School District’s program manager for community education, or 140 elementary school students – many from four Ahwatukee campuses.

They relied on fun and ingenuity to begin mastering complex principles from science, technology, engineering and math, usually now grouped under the acronym STEM.

Flocken and his team – who develop and oversee the district’s preschool, after-school and summer programs for some 3,500 children – organized a “STEMtramural” competition that had students develop arcade games from cardboard and recyclable materials.

“We were inspired by the athletic intramural program we have in the district,” Flocken explained. “We wanted to create the kind of energy and enthusiasm you can find in the athletic program in an academic format.”

Another source of inspiration was a viral video called “Caine’s Arcade,” about a young boy who built a cardboard arcade in the back of his father’s auto repair store.

The only requirements for the STEMtramurals were that the inventions had to be playable arcade games and had to incorporate a design, engineering or other STEM principle that could be demonstrated by their project.

With teachers serving as coaches, the students worked in teams or on their own in after school to produce 55 different games that were displayed at a show at Pueblo Middle School, where judges voted on what game was best of show, showed the most creativity or fit in some other award category.

Every game also had to include a student-drawn blueprint for its construction.

Some games incorporated pulleys or ramps to demonstrate engineering principles. One student used a pulley to build a game where players moved a homemade claw to grab paperclips and win a prize. Similar to an arcade game where players use a claw to grab little dolls or other toys in a glass-enclosed box, the game used saran wrap instead of glass.

Another game had players tossing a small ball into an egg carton on a spinning disc. No one realized there was a student underneath the disc that kept it turning.

While “an introduction to engineering design was important,” what also was critical in the project was helping the students develop character traits necessary to advance their education and succeed in the workplace, Flocken said.

“It involved getting the students to think of a goal and taking it from start to finish and to be innovative and persistent,” Flocken said. “They’d hit bumps in the road and the coaches would work with them to solve them.”

Such lessons are part of Kyrene’s overall philosophy to make sure students just don’t learn their ABCs and how to count, but to develop the traits they will need to succeed in college as well as their careers.

“It was a really cool and innovative program and our students are innovative thinkers,” said Flockens.

And the students built them without help from older siblings or parents since the games could not be taken home.

“It was a surprise how well thought out and how innovative each game was,” he said. “They thought of things I never would have thought of.”

The STEMtramurals also represented the next generation in extracurricular academic competitions that began with a Rubik’s Cube meet that Flockens started last year and will repeat in the coming months.

In that competition, students learn the algorithms and patterns for solving various Rubik’s Cubes and eventually compete to solve 20 in the shortest amount of time possible.

The schools represented in the intramurals included the Ahwatukee campuses of Cerritos, Estrella, Lagos Dual Language Academy and Monte Vista; Brisas, Mirada and Paloma in Chandler; and Waggoner and Cielo in Tempe.

In the school competition, Division 1 saw a first-place tie with Brisas and Cielo while Estrella took second place and Brisas was named a fan favorite; Division 2 winners were Mirada, first place; Lagos, second; Waggoner, third and Lagos the fan favorite.

Ahwatukee students who won recognition were: Niya Niya De Soto-Facio, Cerritos, Most Innovative Use of Recyclable Materials; Logan Boggs, Estrella, Best Team Spirit; Monte Vista students Kristian Zhou, James Foldes, Gloria Chair, Most Creative Theme; Race Uleman, Lagos, Most Creative Theme; Logan Gillaspie,Estrella, Best Blueprint; Keegan Neid, Estrella, Best in Show 2nd place; and Lagos students Seamus Dutton, Kael Moore, Dominic Montalbalbano, Best in Show 2nd place.

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