Gaming from the ground up

By Michael Bycraft. Posted

Michael Bycraft shares the story of how one of his students created a full-size arcade game

"Mr Bycraft, do you know what a Raspberry Pi is?” Two years ago Kevin Park, then an 8th grade (Year 9) student in my Collaborative Engineering class, asked me this question. We had just begun an ‘Entertainment and Gaming’ unit. Kevin had seen a Raspberry Pi used to build a handheld video game emulator, and was inspired to create his own system. Most students in class constructed board games, or toys for younger students. Kevin had bigger plans. 

Over the following two years, Kevin worked with a team of teachers to build a full-size arcade machine. At two metres tall, it is a monument to creativity, technical skills and collaboration – all values espoused by the Design and Innovation program here at the Korea International School (KIS). 

Humble beginnings

I loved working with Raspberry Pis, and wanted to find an opportunity to introduce the Pi into the Collaborative Engineering class, and Kevin’s idea fitted well. Kevin worked diligently in class to learn the coding for the Raspberry Pi. There were setbacks, but over the weeks a wooden handheld gaming device came to life. It used a 7-inch monitor, lithium battery, and a USB controller. The Pi ran the RetroPie emulator and, to everyone’s amazement, worked perfectly. 

Both Kevin and I were ecstatic. The game console inspired students to explore coding and to learn to use Pis. I use microcontrollers in my class often, but this represented a significant step up in technology, coding, and design. The handheld game motivated us to do more.

Building the arcade

The following year, Kevin made the most of the opportunity to extend his project in his Programming and Computer Aided Design classes. Justin Marslender, an educational technology specialist at KIS, was one of the main teachers working with Kevin. Marslender’s woodworking skills complemented Park’s computing knowledge well. “It was great working with Kevin on this. Since I handled most of the physical construction and he the technical side, we met regularly to see what we could and could not do. He was always thinking about how to add another feature.” 

After months of planning, the design began to come together. Marslender encouraged the use of recycled materials. “I really enjoyed the challenge of putting this together from scratch and repurposed material – a leftover monitor and speakers; lights from several old document cameras; all sorts of scrap lumber from the MS Makerspace.” The sound is provided by an old set of PC speakers set and a subwoofer. The rig is cooled by an upcycled computer fan, and a strip of LEDs light the marquee. 

In a particularly inspired design, the controllers can be stored in two 3D-printed holders. Between the controllers, the Raspberry Pi is visible under a clear acrylic sheet, showing off the ‘brains’ of the machine for all to see. Like before, a Raspberry Pi 3B runs the RetroPie emulation station. 

Kevin sketches some initial designs to hold the controllers in the cabinet.

“I think the arcade machine at KIS here serves as a method to show students where they can expand their learning,” says Marslender. The cabinet continues to inspire students to make their interests come alive. They play games at lunch, but also know that this isn’t just an arcade cabinet. It’s two years of work and planning, made real by their peers and teachers.

The arcade game is not the only exciting project Kevin Park has worked on. He has programmed video games, soldered custom keyboards, and designed robots for the school’s competitive VEX robotics team. Park noticed that the school’s rotating block schedule was complicated, so he created an automated app that emailed students their schedule each day before classes.

Kevin’s work is an exemplification of the robust design programme we implement here at KIS, which begins in kindergarten, and continues through our primary and secondary schools. The educational focus is on design thinking and project-based learning. Classes examine real-world problems, and attempt to create solutions. Students are encouraged to follow their passions, and incorporate personal interests into their work. 

We try to ensure authentic educational experiences are everywhere. Elementary art students learn printmaking, and create images of endangered animals to raise awareness. They sell those prints, donating the money to animal conservation. Middle school students plan and design themed mini-golf courses, which are open to all at an annual school golf tournament. In high school, CAD students search for needs in the school, then build solutions, working closely with their teachers to ensure real applications of skills. One project saw students design a secondary STEM suite, presenting their work to the head of school. Their proposal became reality six months later. 

Kevin’s arcade game is now the centre of attention at our Design and Innovation Center. Amid laser cutters and 3D printers, it dominates the scene. A group of students gather around during lunch, playing a racing game. The students cheer one another on. I see a student glance down at the Raspberry Pi driving the machine and overhear, “That little thing runs all this? Cool.”

The ‘brains’ of the arcade game – a Raspberry Pi – behind acrylic for the user to see, alongside the 3D-printed controller storage.

Tips for creating authentic student projects

Creating an atmosphere for student achievement and making can be challenging, but makes for great experiences. These are ways to help build that atmosphere in your school:

  • Build a maker mindset, where failure is a gift to be learned from

  • Encourage solutions to real-world problems that require empathising with an authentic audience

  • The giving and receiving of feedback is an essential tool that is developed in the design process

  • Create open time, where students can create and follow their interests

  • Pair students with teachers and other experts to help grow their projects

  • Realise the learning outcome is the process, and not the final product

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