EA’s knockout initiative to address skills shortfall – “We want everyone to see a future for themselves in the industry, no matter their background, ethnicity, or gender.”

Chris Bruzzo

Late last year, a group of technology leaders informed the government that it had a duty to narrow a persistent skills gap that was costing the economy £1.5 billion a year to plug. Simultaneously launching its Engineering Kids’ Future campaign, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) estimated that the shortfall in STEM sector workers was currently over 173,000, equivalent to ten vacant positions per UK business. Unsurprising, half of those companies were experiencing acute skill shortages when recruiting.

The scale of the shortfall proves it has not been brought about by COVID or Brexit – although neither will have helped. Indeed, according to the IET, the STEM skills gap has been widening for 15 years, meaning any solution would need to address every tier of primary and secondary school education. Only by establishing and maintaining appropriate and practical long-term skills learning, we are told, could the UK hope to fully compete.

Businesses and other institutions have of course been aware of the shortfall for some time, with many implementing or cooperating in initiatives that address arrears specific to their industry. EA is one such company, having worked with EVERFI in North America since 2015 to deliver its cloud-based Play to Learn course, which has so far reached more than 16,000 students. Its success has led EA to recently launching Play to Learn in the UK, targeting 11-14 year olds. A simultaneous partnership with Digital Schoolhouse is targeting dozens of primary schools. A drop in the ocean, perhaps, but if the initiatives continue as they’ve started, more will undoubtedly follow.

What have been the practicalities and difficulties in establishing these two initiatives?

Chris Bruzzo: We launched our partnerships with EVERFI and Digital Schoolhouse to help a new generation of talent discover the fun, challenge and opportunity that a career in science, technology, engineering, art and maths (STEAM) offers. So many kids already love to play video games, so they’re an excellent way to engage kids of all ages in these skills. We want everyone to see a future for themselves in the industry, no matter their background, ethnicity, or gender.

Delivering STEAM workshops into schools nationwide comes with challenges, naturally. But that’s why we chose to go down a partnership route. By working with EVERFI and Digital Schoolhouse we’ve been able to tap into existing networks of schools that already share resources and have the infrastructure to help reach pupils across the UK, and in turn develop a passion for STEAM in as many young people as we can. 

It’s been a huge team effort to bring these partnerships to life, and we’ve had expert help every step of the way, and I’m very grateful to our partners for that. Together, we can reach the next generation in a much more meaningful way than any of us could do alone.

How many students do you hope to reach and for how long will the partnership run?

CB: We’ve committed to two-year partnerships with both Digital Schoolhouse and EVERFI. We hope to reach 2,500 children across 75 primary and secondary schools across the UK. By tapping into our partners’ networks, we’re able to provide engaging, educational content nationwide with a simple click of a button.

Our existing partnership with EVERFI in North America and Canada has already proved successful and is now in its seventh year of running. By bringing the programme to the UK for the first time, we hope to inspire pupils across the world to explore what a career in science, technology, engineering, arts and maths might look like.   

Last year, the UK’s STEM skills gap was reported to cost the nation over £1.5bn per year.  It’s also important to draw attention to the ‘A’ when we refer to STEAM, which stands for Art. In building programmes that bring these different disciplines together, we’re able to bring to life how art and engineering so often overlap – such as in video games. At Electronic Arts we pride ourselves on making great games that are loved by truly global audiences – to do that we need creativity, ingenuity and excellent art direction to make games that stand out.

There has never been a greater moment for our industry to collaborate with educators. By mobilising around the popularity and interest in video games we can work with education experts to provide creative solutions that build engagement and skills for STEAM careers in a meaningful way.

What stage are things at?

CB: The primary school programme was launched at a school in Salford, Manchester and is now available on Digital Schoolhouse’s online resource hub for all schools in its community. The programme provides a creative computing workshop for teachers where pupils work with family favourite video game, Knockout City, to explore what it takes to teach an AI to play dodgeball. By breaking down simple instructions it engages primary school students with the basics of coding.

In partnership with EVERFI we began rolling out our cloud-based education course – ‘EA Play to Learn’  – across the UK for the first time in February. The co-developed course showcases STEAM skills through an engaging format that mirrors how these skills would be applied in a real-life game design team. The free course is accessible to EVERFI’s UK network of educators and aims to bring to life what a ‘real life’ career as a game creator looks like for students aged 11-14, who are approaching important decisions about their education and career opportunities. We’ve reached almost 250 pupils since then and have rolled out to more students since Easter.

Primary school kids are typically obsessed with Minecraft, Pokémon and Roblox. What can Knockout City help them understand that other games can’t?

CB: Our number one objective is to inspire young, curious minds and encourage them to engage in science, technology, engineering, art and maths. The mechanics of video games are a powerful platform for us to do that because it invites them to explore new skills in a format already familiar to them that they love playing.

To be successful, we knew we needed a game that could be easily broken down into simple steps just as easily as it could capture the imagination. Knockout City is all about playing dodgeball – it’s a game school kids across the UK are familiar with, and crucially, it lends itself to offline and online exercises that simplify some of the basic coding principles to even young kids.

The premise of our workshop is to challenge kids to think about what it would take to make Knockout City a single-player game.

We aim to empower students to think about how they would instruct an AI to play dodgeball. That means starting with an offline game of dodgeball that burns some energy while encouraging them to think, in very granular terms, about all the steps needed to play the game successfully. Where do I look? What action do I take next? By the end of the lesson, each student can use their experiences playing dodgeball to plan and create their own algorithms and put them to the test in-game.

How has the program been received so far?

CB: The launch in Salford gave us the rare opportunity to see first-hand how students and staff alike react to the materials provided – and it was heartwarming to hear their feedback. We had kids telling us they wanted to become developers and artists as they left the classroom – there’s no better result!

What is the challenge in bringing Play to Learn to the UK?

CB: Having run the ‘EA Play to Learn’ programme for seven years now, EVERFI have helped us take our educational efforts from strength to strength. The co-developed course showcases STEAM skills through an engaging format that mirrors how these skills would be applied in a real-life game design team. The free course is accessible to EVERFI’s UK network of educators and is targeted at secondary school students aged 11-14.

Jemma Best, Head of Products in the UK, EVERFI: We were conscious that we were going to be bringing a course that was developed in the USA to the UK where the education system is very different. EVERFI’s UK office helped us to review the content, localise it in terms of language and context and develop accompanying support resources for teachers which highlight how the course links to the schools curricula for all the UK home nations.  We also created career pathway information which aligns with the UK qualifications system across school, further and higher education.

Again, what stage is Play to Learn UK at and how is Play to Learn structured?

CB: We launched to UK schools in February and are looking to engage with 25 schools across the UK. With the course being available entirely online, we (alongside teachers) have been able to see how it’s being used. It’s still early days but we’ve already seen good uptake!

How integrated is the DSH initiative with EVERFI/ Play to Learn?

CB: The content we’ve developed through our partnerships with Digital Schoolhouse and EVERFI is designed to meet the different needs and interests that children across these age groups have.

For primary school students, we’ve focused on building engaging workshops that introduce the concepts of coding in a simple, fun way while being aligned to the computing curriculum in Primary schools. It’s designed to prepare them for the more structured computer science curriculum they will experience at secondary school.

Meanwhile, for the older 11 to 14 year olds the focus of EVERFI’s interactive digital course is to allow students to be a part of a game design team and bring to life what a meaningful career in STEAM might look like just at that point where students are often making critical decisions about their futures.

Why is EA backing these UK initiatives?

CB: The UK is home to some of the world’s best creative and entrepreneurial talent, and we want to keep it that way! We’re pleased to play our part in inspiring the next generation of talent and to do what we can to make sure our industry continues to benefit from a diverse and skilled talent pool. To help us get to that future sooner, we want to build positive educational experiences that get kids excited about careers in all fields of STEAM, including video games. Partnering with Digital Schoolhouse and EVERFI allows us to do just that for school kids of all ages and, crucially, do it in a way that tackles the barriers many schools are facing.

Access to technology, particularly in primary schools, is a huge barrier to STEAM education. Through our work with Digital Schoolhouse and EVERFI, we’re reducing the need for advanced tech or devices in the first instance – making sure any school has the tools they need to take part in the action.

Why did you partner up with Ukie and EVERFI specifically?

CB: Both partners are seasoned experts in their field. For instance, Digital Schoolhouse is our UK trade association Ukie’s education programme, and they have a strong track-record of engaging primary schools across the country with games-focused resources to help teach coding. We were already aware of the incredible work that the Digital Schoolhouse team was doing in the UK so the partnership was a natural fit for us.

Similarly, our existing successful partnership with EVERFI in America and Canada meant we could bring a tried-and-tested programme to new audiences. We’d already learned so much from our work with them over the last seven years and it was great to be able to roll out the initiative in the UK.

How do you hope to follow up on these initiatives?

CB: We’ve agreed to two-year partnerships with both Digital Schoolhouse and EVERFI and we’re hopeful this marks the beginning of our UK partnerships with these organisations.

We’re always thinking about new ways we can support the next generation of creators. While plans are still to be firmed up, we hope that in the future these partnerships will lead to new opportunities for staff from our studios across the UK to visit local schools and share their experiences about careers in video games.

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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