Original Published 20:07 May 17, 2022

By Maggie Macintosh , Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Videogaming is all-consuming at Tech Hub — but make no mistake, the hands-on digital media course for teenagers in the Seven Oaks School Division is not all fun and games.

“I did not expect code scripts to be as complicated as they are,” said Felicity Patton, a Grade 10 student who spends her weekday afternoons at a quiet studio on Albert Street, the program’s Exchange District campus.

In addition to learning C#, a popular programming language that is used by developers to instruct computers to perform specific tasks, Tech Hub participants study colour theory, psychology and mathematics, among other computer science essentials.

Instructor Dylan Fries said graduates leave with “a real grab-bag of skills” that are key in the videogame industry. Given his resume boasts roughly a dozen years of experience in the sector, Fries is both well-versed in its needs and well-equipped to teach the next generation of developers urgently needed to fill jobs in Winnipeg.

Over the last three school years, Seven Oaks and New Media Manitoba have partnered to recruit skilled professionals from the province’s growing digital media workforce to mentor students via non-traditional instruction.

Tech Hub began in 2019-20 as a semester-long course for a cohort of approximately 20 high schoolers who started leaving their home schools for a portion of the day to develop games.

Its success has since prompted Seven Oaks to develop a related after-school program, during which students in grades 9 to 12 can earn credits as they work alongside instructors from the University of Winnipeg and industry mentors. Around 100 students are involved in extended-day Tech Hubs at Maples Collegiate, Collège Garden City Collegiate, West Kildonan Collegiate and Wayfinders.

“Deeper learning happens on the margins — in extracurriculars, in these types of programs because there’s a real apprenticeship-type of relationship,” said Matt Henderson, assistant superintendent of curriculum and programs at Seven Oaks.

Henderson said challenging gaming projects “reel in” students who thrive under mentorship from passionate adults.

During the daytime program, high schoolers learn how to build individual games, then work collaboratively to produce a game as a class, with small teams focused on game level design, character animation, and programming.

The current animation team was pouring over sketches and photos of calico cats to perfect the design of their main character on a recent school day.

Felicity, 16, and her peers are working in Unity, an industry-grade game engine often used by professionals to create apps, to produce a game about an adventurous cat.

“It’s a male-dominated field and as a girl, I want to help change that and balance it out more so that… women feel safe and feel wanted to join this industry,” said Felicity, when asked why she signed up for the course.

The Grade 10 student said she relishes the afternoon break from traditional classes, as well as the opportunity to get job experience and course credit while building video games.

Seven Oaks and New Media Manitoba said they are fielding questions from other school divisions interested in pursuing similar projects.

The partners rely on internal resources and grants to run the program. Tech Hub has secured funding from Manitoba’s Teachers’ Idea Fund. It also recently received a grant from Epic Games, the software developer that produced Fortnite.

“It’s great to see a school division pushing the limits of what school can look like,” said Tech Hub teacher Kurt Hangle.

Fries, who co-teaches the daytime program, echoed those comments; their students are so engaged that he said it can be difficult to wrap up class.

“Once they have the interest, they’ll research it on their own. You can’t stop them. We laugh because lots of times, at the end of class, we’re like ‘OK, go home, get out of here!’” Fries said.

This item reprinted with permission from Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba