Outstanding Teachers: It’s Game Time For Lively Learning From Media To Math And Science

April 28, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Great Teaching is at the heart of a great university. Nine University professors featured here have received special acclaim for their instructional acumen from Carnegie Foundation, Presidential and Chancellor awards to recognition by The Princeton Review. Their classroom magic inspires students and prepares them for the future.

By Neill Rosenfeld

TEAM GRANOLA’S GAME was preparing for Hurricane Rees, soon to whip through town with terrifying force. The object: Move around the board, gathering the essentials — food, fuel, medical supplies and hardware, plywood and tools — needed to survive the big blow.

The team — Jose Carillo, Jessica Jeffers and Matthew Soto — presented their concept to their beginning game-design class in November with PowerPoint, a hand-drawn board and task cards (safeguard a business, arrange for education, secure a house, etc.). Hurricane Sandy, then fresh in the news, had inspired their response to the assignment: Devise a game to promote social good.

Designing and playing games about real problems to enhance learning.

Designing and playing games about real problems to enhance learning.

Naming the hurricane after their teacher, assistant professor Rees Shad, was a given, considering his whirlwind classroom approach.
“You need a symmetrical board to give everyone a fair shot,” Shad said, amid a flurry of suggestions and questions. “Your design suggests two teams, not four players. Which is it? … You limit play to 30 minutes, so what about creating a 30-minute soundtrack that could say, ‘You have 15 minutes until the storm hits’ … You mentioned heuristics and said 75 to 80 percent of players liked the game, but how many tested it? That number is important … What if someone steals the last hammer from you at the hardware store?”

Lively classes are one reason why the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) named Shad the 2012 New York State professor of the year — one of only 31 cited nationwide from among 300 nominees.

Shad also nailed down a three-year, $610,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) advanced technology education grant for Hostos’ Game-Framed Mathematics and Science Initiative. He and assistant professor Catherine Lewis are collaborating with math, physics, natural science and education faculty on six new courses that will use games to involve students in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Students begin with role-playing or “analog” board games, which provide “a foundation for programming-centric courses” and the skills “to pursue careers in game design as well as interactive media,” according to the NSF abstract. The interactive part includes A.A.S. degrees in digital music and digital design and animation.

Hostos launched its digital media programs to equip students for college and for 21st-century careers. Ninety-seven percent Latino or African-American and 67 percent female, Hostos students often fall on the short side of the “digital divide.” As Shad uses that phrase, it no longer defines mere access to the Internet, but the knowledge needed to pursue technology-based careers.
Weak high school preparation thwarts many students. In 2010, only 22 percent of incoming Hostos freshmen passed the CUNY Skills Test in math, including just 41 percent of digital media students.

“We were seeing an awful lot of students repeating remedial math courses,” says Shad. “Students who eat up their tuition-aid dollars on remedial courses may not finish their associate degrees and, if they do, may not have aid available for bachelor’s degrees.”
Enter what he calls “game-framing,” a logic-based endeavor that requires students to understand content in order to convey it to others through systems of play. “If you have to teach a concept, you’re engaging a different part of the brain and have a different motivation than pure study provides,” he says.

In the second phase of the NSF grant, Hostos will offer a Summer Games Institute for secondary school students in 2014. It is likely to include design and animation students from Bronx High School for the Visual Arts and digital music students from Crotona Academy High School. Shad played a key role in arranging those alliances. Graduating seniors from those schools who enroll at Hostos and demonstrate mastery of digital basics will be admitted to higher-level courses, offering a faster path to an A.A.S. degree.

The third phase, set for winter 2015, features professional development workshops for college and secondary school educators in game-framed education. They will feature assessment materials collected during the previous year’s work with college and high school students.
Taken as a whole, the NSF grant will build a pipeline into Hostos’ programs and digital careers, which can be pursued at the bachelor’s level at other CUNY colleges.

“It’s a provost’s dream to have this kind of activity going on across those areas and very much embraced by those departments,” says Hostos Provost Carmen Coballes-Vega, who nominated Shad for the teacher of the year award. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like him — distinguished in his field and committed to disseminating his skills so community college students can graduate with something cutting-edge. This has become one of our fastest-growing majors.”

Coballes-Vega says the NSF grant will finance a game-design lab to accompany the sound studio and computer-intensive graphics program previously funded by CUNY, the mayor’s office and the Bronx borough president’s office.

She added that Shad “has surrounded himself with two exceptional colleagues,” Lewis and assistant professor Sarah Sandman. “Their energy and vision is contagious. This man is so humble, yet he does so much. His influence is enormous, both with faculty and students and other staff, and in the community as well.”

Shad knows what it’s like to be what he, himself, once was: “a troubled kid.” As a teen on the East Side of Manhattan, “I started getting into serious trouble and my folks and grandmother sent me off to a tiny little prep school called the Gunnery [Mr. Gunn's School in Washington, Conn.], which changed my life in many ways.”

As he recently wrote for his alumni magazine, he arrived there “dealing with loads of confusing and conflicting feelings, struggling to recognize anything of worth in myself, barely holding on to a GPA that could keep me at Gunnery.” But he encountered English teacher Pam Taylor and math teacher Ed Small. “Ed was a man who scared the hell out of me, and who struggled to get me engaged in mathematics, but who somehow taught me how to apply myself and ignore imagined limitations…. This old New Englander helped me develop a work ethic that I struggle to translate to my students on a daily basis.”
Taylor’s “writing courses were the toughest I ever experienced.… Her techniques and fearsome attitude only partially hid the warmest, most student-invested teacher I have ever known. These are things that I consciously work to emulate in my teaching,” Shad wrote.

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REES SHAD • ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF VISUAL AND PERFORMING ARTS • HOSTOS COLLEGE

Shad earned a B.A. in English literature and English history at Skidmore College; a M.S. in technical communication with a focus on human-computer interaction and a certificate in graphics at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute; and an MFA at Parsons, the New School for Design. And that was after 15 years as a world-traveling singer/songwriter, musician (guitar, piano and a bit of trumpet) and recording engineer (he built his first studio at 18).
What he liked most about the recording industry was “mentoring college and high school interns, sharing with them the magic of what I loved. I recognized that what I really wanted to do was teach.”

Hostos had reached out to Shad’s mentor at Parsons, Morry Galonoy, looking for someone to develop a graphic design program. Galonoy suggested Shad, who at his interview suggested that “just graphic design was calling it short. It should be multimedia. The school asked for a proposal.” He wrote it and they bit.

Hostos launched digital graphic design and animation in 2008, digital music and audio production in 2010 and game design in January 2012. “This tripod of disciplines provides for a wealth of collaboration between students, which is probably the most important skill set they can have to prepare for careers in multimedia,” he says. The 265 majors “have risen to the program’s’ challenges.”

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Rees Shad

“I got to design these programs class by class, to select the faculty and to design our labs and recording studio,” says Shad. “I’ve built houses, been a carpenter, been a graphic designer and filmmaker, all at the same time. I like having 18 balls in the air. This is the perfect atmosphere to work in.”
Shad wants students to be realistic. “I have friends who dropped out of high school and won Grammies, but competition makes that less likely every year. Someone coming out of high school today will change careers six times. Whatever software you’re good at, it will eventually change. So what kind of tools can we give them that go beyond an associate degree? Higher degrees, certainly. Beyond that, communications, confident self-learning and a collaborative skill set.”

Shad says that winning the professor of the year award “is an honor, it’s wonderful, but I don’t hold a candle to my colleagues who have been at Hostos since they were teaching in windowless rooms, with no heating. What am I to that?”

“Life for me is play, and people look at me and say you’re not taking life seriously, but I am. But I’m handling it like a game because of the level of engagement and play. In the classroom I’m having a blast, and when I do, my students have a blast.”