By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News
WAYLAND ? School wasn?t in session on Friday, like every Friday in the WACO Community School District, but students filled the Innovation Lab at WACO High School anyway.
By 9:30 a.m., every seat was taken, and students were waiting on the sidelines ready to jump onto a computer to engage in a video game.
During the school day, this classroom is used to teach media creation skills to seventh through 12-graders, such as shooting and creating videos, stop animation, coding and anything else they might be passionate about. After school, it turns into the Esports Center, where students can play video games and compete globally with other players.
While playing video games might seem counterproductive to learning and engaging in the classroom, technology coach and junior high science teacher Drew Ayrit is seeing his students thrive in this environment.
?In my mind, it?s another opportunity for students to get involved in a team and build problem-solving skills,? Ayrit said. ?I hope to roll the enthusiasm for Esports into video editing, building social media skills and providing other innovative technology such as coding, robotics and game creation,? he added, saying these ?21st Century skills? are all about passions.
While the creation of an Innovation Lab has been incubating for a year and a half, the concept was implemented and finalized this semester. It was made possible through a $25,000 Washington County Riverboat Foundation grant, with an additional $12,000 coming from the school?s Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL). All the video games are free.
Senior Calvin Battle Jr. actually helped finalize the construction of the classroom in his shop class. As he sat with his video game paused, he explained how they shaped the metal decorations along the walls and built the island that sits in the middle of the classroom.
?It was great to get to help be a part of building this center,? Battle said. ?It?s an accomplishment.?
As a 12th-grader, Battle won?t get to be a part of the competitive video gaming teams that will form next year, but he still appreciates the new community he is able to build.
?It brings people together instead of playing (video games) at home,? Battle said. ?I?ll ask someone if they want to play with me and then we will start talking about other things like school and life.?
Seventh-graders like Grace Fort appreciates getting to interact with the high schoolers in the Innovation Lab. She said that?s a part of what makes it fun ? getting to join people she wouldn?t normally get a chance to talk to. While the main games students were competing in were Fortnite, Rocket League and Overwatch, there was a general consensus that the favorite was Fortnite.
Seventh-grader McKenzie Vradenburg said Fortnite has been her favorite game ever since she figured out she can team up with other players. ?You definitely learn from your mistakes,? she said.
Not all of the students showed up Friday to improve their gaming skills. Seventh-grader Noah Rich and sophomore Nikko Alcodia were seated at the island in the middle of the lab building a computer.
?Noah is our local computer tech,? Ayrit said, as Rich remained with his head bent over the wires of the computer and checking a manual.
Alcodia said that he learned how to build computers through YouTube tutorials and Google searches. While Alcodia isn?t completely sold on the idea of joining the Esports team next year, he is interested in the possibility of scholarships he could get from it.
Alcodia said that he was surprised when the school announced in January that they would be launching the Innovation Lab, but he is grateful because now he doesn?t have to worry about a slow computer when trying to finish his homework.
?Our older computers were so slow PowerPoint wouldn?t work,? Alcodia said. ?Now, we use the new computers for editing videos for classes like Spanish.?
Once the dust settles and teachers and students have a good idea of the potential of the Innovation Lab, Ayrit is planning on launching official Esports teams to compete in video games next year. While they have one of the first official Esports labs in Iowa, they will do a lot of scrimmaging with each other, but Ayrit is looking into opportunities for tournaments across state lines.
Esports tournaments could get pretty competitive nowadays too, with Big Ten colleges now offering scholarships for Esport players.
This was a big selling point when Ayrit pitched the Esports idea to WACO?s superintendent Jeff Dicks.
Dicks said that before seeing the Innovation Lab in action, he didn?t understand the strategy involved in gaming and how that can also be involved in education.
When Ayrit presented the idea to him to build this lab, Dicks said, ?This will be a hurdle,? but he?s quickly learning how video gaming benefits students beyond just having another place to find community.
Dicks said that having a safe space where students can play video games and learn about digital media is a great opportunity to not only teach them strategy, teambuilding and problem-solving, but also ethics.
?This isn?t all about gaming,? Dicks said. ?There?s teachable moments all over this morning, and it?s going to happen organically.?
Dicks added that in the time the Innovation Lab has been open to students, there has been no discipline issues. ?The kids are here for the right reasons,? he said.
Ayrit said that the Innovation Lab is going to keep moving forward through the shared enthusiasm of students and teachers. ?I?m not getting paid to be here (on a Friday),? Ayrit said. ?They don?t have to be here. We knew the passion was there.?
Ayrit said that Esports will be treated just like any other sports ? students will have to keep up their grades to participate. Anyone who walks through the doors struggling in a subject will first be sent to work with their teacher on how to improve their grade before they are able to play in the Innovation Lab.
The Innovation Lab is open after school on Monday and Tuesday to all students. On Wednesday, it is reserved for female students only. Thursdays and Fridays are reserved for students interested in competing in Esports.