Twelve-year-old Landy sits at a round cafeteria table and tapes pieces of copper onto the cardboard he has cut out in the shape of a video game controller. He connects wires from the cardboard to a small console. Then, he pulls up a game on his laptop and puts his fingers on the makeshift buttons.
“Look, Ms. Teshara! Ms. Teshara!”
He is learning to use a combination of everyday items and a technology kit to play games like Pac-Man, Super Mario and others.
“This is cool,” he says with eyes fixed on the screen.
This project is part of a pilot program from the Y and Google Fiber for middle schoolers in Fun Company. YMCA Fun Company provides a safe place for thousands of students to grow and thrive in the critical hours before school, after school and during the summer.
For five weeks, two of the Y's after school sites are working with mobile computer labs on Chromebooks for STEM learning. The project offers kids a unique, hands-on opportunity to learn and play.
Landy is asked if he would have ever thought it possible to make a game controller out of such materials.
“Yep,” he responds matter-of-factly. “I knew it was going to happen someday.”
Olivia Gant, Fun Company area coordinator, says the kids quickly showed enthusiasm for the various projects, which are designed to let them take the lead.
“They can set it up, and we’re just here to supervise,” she says. “They really enjoy it. It’s something different to bring to the program.”
She’s interrupted by Landy’s excitement. “Ms. Olivia! Watch!”
“I’m watching,” she says and looks at the game over his shoulder. Olivia’s encouraged to see the children embrace projects with so much educational potential.
“It’s another vehicle for them to learn life skills with technology—taking common, everyday things and really making something out of it,” she says. “It’s very creative.”
Caleb, 11, makes a larger, square controller covered in tin foil for the games he’s interested in. “I had no idea Play-Doh conducted electricity,” he says.
Across the table, Justice shakes his blond bangs out of his eyes and asks for help drawing the outline of his controller on the cardboard. The staff encourages him to give it a try.
By the end of the afternoon, Justice not only succeeds at creating a functional controller, but he also becomes an outspoken advocate for the project.
“It’s really interesting in the way that you get these materials and you can basically do whatever you want with it. There are no limitations,” he says and quickly adds that he sounds like an exaggerated Xbox commercial, but he means it. “You can do so many things with it. You can Scratch a website. You can play homemade games, where people have actually coded them. It’s really cool.”
With the project being an obvious hit at the pilot sites, the next goal is to share the mobile labs across more Fun Company locations in the next year.
Fun Company bridges the gap between home and school for thousands of students ages 3-13. The program is part of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee, which each year nurtures the development of more than 78,000 youth and teens throughout the greater Nashville area.