Teaching Through Gaming in Baltimore - Episode 526 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

In this episode of the podcast, Christopher is joined by William Sullivan, a resident of the city of Baltimore who works as part of the Digital Equity Leadership Lab. He shares his work in the city in recent years in getting students engaged in building digital skills and computer literacy. By pairing gaming with learning programs, Sullivan and his colleagues not only got students interested in computer hardware, but incented them to build new digital skills that would aid them in college and on the job market later in life. It also, he shares, fostered interest in taking on additional new learning challenges, as well as building new social spaces with people they had not known before.

This show is 16 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Christopher Mitchell (00:00):

Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcasts. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul Minnesota. Actually Minneapolis today, back in the office, but not from my normal home in St. Paul. And I'm speaking with William Sullivan, a concerned citizen of, of Baltimore, who is doing some really interesting work around youth and computers. William, welcome to the show.

William Sullivan (00:27):

Thank you for inviting me. I'm happy to be on.

Christopher Mitchell (00:32):

And you and I got connected by Amalia, who works at the R W Deutsch Foundation doing wonderful work, engaging people across the community to improve internet access and make sure people can take full advantage of that. And that's where, as I understand it, you basically shared some work you'd been doing with trying to get more opportunities for kids to engage with computers and video games and that sort of a thing. But why don't you tell us where that story starts?

William Sullivan (01:01):

Well, that story starts, I was working in my compu in my recreation center. I was working in my recreation center. And at this time, the thing that was going on was the computer gaming, mostly with the teenagers. I forget the name of it, but there, there was some serious gaming going on. And also at the same time, I'm working with mainly middle school children and I wanted to prepare them for the job market. And the ways that I felt that I could do that was with, through computers and through preparation with administrative stuff, I wanted to get them to get their typing speed up so that they could write resumes and and also do applications and all. But that wasn't interesting to them. So what I did was I combined that with gaming and I promised them that I would have the games available for them, but in order for them to participate in the games, they had to take the lessons that I had laid out.


And that turned the key. And since that turned the key and they were actively participating and spending good amounts of time doing that, I introduced it to some of my other coworkers and we decided that we could take this a step further. And I talked to some some of my coworkers. They told me that I would need, we would need monitors and modems, and we found a way to produce that. So the next step was to coordinate everything to build a game board and to challenge person to person and rec center to rec center. And we got all of that worked out. Then, because I was involved in something else with the, some of the colleges I asked that the college give us grad assistance that had to do community-based work before they graduated. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, they said yes. So we built on that idea and decided that maybe we should teach the kids how to break a computer down and build it back up because there were so many different incoming opportunities back then and the computer field that would give them great college ex exposure and keys to get into good paying jobs in their job market.


And we did all of that. We put all of that together, but we were never able to start the program because an administrator who was not a part of the program decided that since she was not in, we could not do it. And so she nixed that program. And when she,

Christopher Mitchell (04:10):

And so you had, sorry to interrupt you. You had built a lot of, of community interest. You had it all worked out and ultimately it's kind of a political turf issue that, that got in your way there. Yes,

William Sullivan (04:21):

That's exactly what it was. That's exactly what it was. So the, the kids, and I can't give you a number, but we started with 12 at my center, if you did that time, six, that's 72 and the first round. And as as it is with other programs that I've done, those programs become citywide. And now you have a whole lot of interest in all different areas of Baltimore City. And we also were located in an area in Baltimore City where the feeder high school was called actually digital high school focus. Where was computers? So me being computer illiterate, which I still am <laugh>, anything that I needed to do with computers, I would just call in my students from high school and they would do it for me. So everything just kind of fell like dominoes except you didn't get to the end of the line. Someone pulled the domino out and stopped everything.

Christopher Mitchell (05:33):

But let's talk a little bit about how enthusiastic the kids are, because I feel like this is something that it's not always clear to people that you have kids that will be motivated to do a variety of things that we want them to do, and also they'll be busy, which I think is very important for, for kids to keep 'em out of trouble no matter where they are or who they are. <laugh> kids that don't have something they're working on and can, can get into trouble a lot easier than kids that are focused on something. And, and you saw a real potential there that, that the kids really were motivated to be able to play in these games. Not just that, but to be able to play against each other and compete against people that they knew and people in the city

William Sullivan (06:11):

And people that they did not know. And that part is, was very important to me because of the crime issue in Baltimore City, usually one major part of crime is unfamiliarity. If you're not familiar with faces, then confrontation could result. As you break down the unfamiliarity, then people, whether they become friends or just associates, the crime factor adolescence. And as, as you introduce a child from East Baltimore to a child from West Baltimore, there's that big divide. But through the gaming, that big divide seems to shrink up and somehow they will link up and there will not be that turfism. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So there's so many different components that could go towards e crowd fighting job training, the road to college, the road to college success. So many different things just from gaming, just through gaming.

Christopher Mitchell (07:19):

And this would've been done through recreational centers that are already there, but they're not currently set up to handle and support that level of, of interest. Right. They don't necessarily write computers or connectivity. And that's the part that you were going to solve.

William Sullivan (07:32):


Christopher Mitchell (07:33):

And, and then is there, is there a future for this? have you seen it where it might happen elsewhere or do you think that there's a way to, to bring it back and, and make it happen still in Baltimore?

William Sullivan (07:43):

You know, when I first started with this class that I'm in, I didn't know what my role could be. I see

Christopher Mitchell (07:53):

That class is, sorry to interrupt for people who may not have been familiar. You're in the, I believe you're in the Digital equity learning lab with R W D H Foundation,

William Sullivan (08:01):

Right? Yes, that is correct. And I didn't, being a computer nerd illiterate, I didn't know where I could fit in. So I just was tagging along and as the conversation started emerging, I saw a couple of different ways that we could do this. And I think that with the individuals that are also in and with the organizations that they're representing, we could quite possibly do a program like this across Baltimore City. And if we did it and we did it successfully, even for just one year or just one school session, then we could replicate this across the country.

Christopher Mitchell (08:45):

Do you see, sorry, go ahead. Please continue.

William Sullivan (08:47):

I mean, it just has so much potential. And when you look at the fact that a lot of chil, a lot of children in our communities don't have very good internet access, this would give them the internet access and it would start giving them the power to create. And in my experience, children are very powerful and creating new things because they don't have the barriers that adults have on their minds. Children if you allow them to, can create anything.

Christopher Mitchell (09:22):

I have a six-year-old and I'm seeing that

William Sullivan (09:24):

<laugh> <laugh>, and then you as a parent will will say to that six year old, well, no, no, for whatever reason. And that destroyed them. Instead of, yes, let's make this happen.

Christopher Mitchell (09:39):

And that is absolutely correct. And I've, I have changed my plans on many a Saturday to try to avoid saying, no <laugh> at this point I've been making some, my, my son made a, a styrofoam car out of some shipping materials and I decided I was gonna use a whole saw to cut out some wooden wheels form rather than doing the other things I was gonna do. Cuz I wanted to make sure he kept that interest.

William Sullivan (09:59):

<laugh>. Yes, yes. I recall when I was in getting off the topic, I recall when I was in junior high school, now they call it middle school and General Motors came to my school and they asked the student body to get interested in designing cars and they held a competition with their new styrofoam, will use wood and soap and we built cars and

Christopher Mitchell (10:28):


William Sullivan (10:29):

It is just tremendous all the things that kids can take part in and you never know which one of that group of kids that's gonna go on and become an executive, put Journal Motors or somebody else.

Christopher Mitchell (10:44):

Well, I, I think there's been an effort in you know, in the nineties and, and since in terms of like having basketball leagues and other things like that to try to give kids something to do. Does the e-gaming league, does that, does that appeal to different kids? Is there a, a generational shift that they're less interested in organized sports now? Like how does that fit in? Well

William Sullivan (11:05):

I think that if you did and you just called it an A-league that sounds

Christopher Mitchell (11:10):


William Sullivan (11:11):

Yeah, that sounds good. E-gaming league that would, okay, let's look at this. Basketball players are physically endowed and they trained to be physically endowed. There are people who are on the computer that will never step on a basketball court, but they will make the games using the images of the basketball players.

Christopher Mitchell (11:36):


William Sullivan (11:36):

<affirmative>. And that, you see how with the Madden thing and all of that, you see how that has taken the country by storm. So there

Christopher Mitchell (11:44):


William Sullivan (11:45):

There is definitely that. And you're talking about kids that are marginalized because they can't dribble a ball, they can't a ball, they can't spin and turn on the dance floor. We don't create opportunities for them and we should.

Christopher Mitchell (12:02):

And you've found that getting these kids started in gaming and then getting them in in these competitions will lead them to be more interested in learning what other opportunities there are around computers.

William Sullivan (12:14):

Of course. Yes. You're talking about computer security, computer manufacturing and all the other, I can't name all this stuff cause <laugh>, it's there and if you look at it, all of these are well paying professions.

Christopher Mitchell (12:30):


William Sullivan (12:31):

And, and they're highly respected professions and they're emerging computer and internet and all of that is the new technology. And they can get in right here, right now at the ground floor. And who knows, they might put us home our

Christopher Mitchell (12:50):

Yes, absolutely. Or maybe make it so we don't have to leave the planet <laugh>.

William Sullivan (12:54):


Christopher Mitchell (12:54):

Are the I, I love this idea. I've been talking about this for quite a bit in that I felt like there's a lot of kids who are good kids who, you know, might just be out cuz they don't have something to be doing in, in the home. And I'd rather have them in the home playing video games than out where they're, you know, caught up in something because I was a kid too. It still seems like it wasn't that long ago

William Sullivan (13:19):

<laugh> and I would rather not have them in the home as much as you are insinuated. I would like to have them in the library, in the school, in the recreation center interacting with other kids, not just in the home.

Christopher Mitchell (13:36):

Right. That's a great distinction. I I'm glad you said that because I feel like they're also, they're, you made the point that I just wanna, we can, we can end lean toward ending on this, but building that familiarity with other kids that they may not be going to school with, they might not be in their neighborhood with, that's gonna do a a lot to try and avoid some of the problems that you see between east and West Baltimore. But every city has these dynamics.

William Sullivan (13:57):

Yes. Every city. Yes.

Christopher Mitchell (13:59):


William Sullivan (14:00):

Thank you. Developing, as you said, eams, and you take these gamers and you take the gaming out of it and put them into a real life situation. Can you develop something that will solve this problem and Yeah. Lets them go and build a

Christopher Mitchell (14:21):


William Sullivan (14:21):

Right. And they will do it.

Christopher Mitchell (14:25):

Yeah. I'm, I'm super enthusiastic about this. I mean, we certainly see robotics teams that are doing interesting things and, and I feel like if it just takes getting some computers dedicated space and such in the rec centers in the schools to be useful for this. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it's such a great idea and I really hope we see that in Baltimore. I hope that others will listen to this and, and work toward getting it in their communities too.

William Sullivan (14:48):

Yes. And if they do start working toward, if they should network because they'll run into some of the same problems, but also very unique problems that they would be able to help one another with. Yes.

Christopher Mitchell (15:01):

Well, thank you so much for your time today,

William Sullivan (15:02):

William. Okay. And thank you for having me on and I hope this goes somewhere.

Ry (15:21):

We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muni networks.org/broadbandbits. Email us@podcastmuninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles at Community Nets, follow muni networks.org, stories on Twitter, the handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this another podcast from I L S R, including Building Local Power, local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter@ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Hughes B for the song, warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through creative comments. This was the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.