FLSEL at STEM Learning Ecosystems

FLSEL recently presented at the STEM Learning Ecosystems Convening to share about the rapid growth we’re experiencing by launching a scholastic esports program in the state of Florida. We shared why educators are passionate about esports, and how even the most skeptical educators have become huge believers in what esports can do to improve student education. Following are some of the thoughts from the event1:

Gerald Solomon, Founder of NASEF and Executive Director of The Samueli Foundation

We started out with 28 clubs and in a little area of Orange County, California. Now as of one year later, there are over 500 clubs in 43 states and we're in two provinces in Canada. We have over 5,000 kids who are participating in the scholastic aspect of esports who see that there's a connection between their fun and their passion and their opportunity to learn and create workforce opportunities in what they're doing. It's about meeting kids where they are. A couple years ago, I didn't know anything about it. Most of us in this room didn't know anything about it. 

I would encourage you to continue to think about what this looks like and the opportunities that are there. It is prolific. If we take advantage of it and we connect the learning to the play, we can have a profound impact on the kids who need it most. Most of all, this work is free, so there are no barriers to participation.

The results are absolutely off the charts beyond what we thought. The nexus between math, science, and social-emotional learning skills that really talk about the characteristics and attributes of STEAM are clearly present and relevant. You see it in the way these kids interact, play and participate in online gaming.

When you look especially the social-emotional learning, communication skills, narrative components, the parts around critical thinking and the like, they are really significant. Then look at the other aspects, encompassing not only with the players but the coaches and the GMs, you can see the kind of mathematics and science formulation, and critical thinking and conversations that are occurring on a regular basis in esports. So, part of what we've done is we've expanded this. We said that if we really wanted to scale, we should go to the communities that are here, the State of Florida.

Eight of the top 15 districts in the United States by numbers are in the State of Florida, and we thought if we can get them to appreciate and understand it, then we can really make a difference. And wow, what amazing things Florida has done! We launched in September; there were eleven school districts that were involved, hundreds and hundreds of students, and the numbers of kids who were getting involved just at the onset of the inaugural meetings was enormous!

Laylah Bulman, Chief Esports Strategist - Florida

I’ve been a teacher and a principal. I’m passionate about finding ways to really connect with students, to give them a way to learn important things and remember them, to equip them to be successful in careers. Every day, I go to classrooms, I go to school districts and I work with students about having and being in immersive hands-on learning experience in STEM, and fact of the matter is sometimes they don't love LEGO anymore, they age out. They may not want to do robotics anymore -- or maybe they weren't even into that to start. My passion, the students, they’ve been my career, and we weren't finding them, we were losing these students in this pipeline. But I knew they were playing games. They come into the school, and I'd see them in their consoles in the lunchroom, or in the hallway, or hanging out, outside in the patio of schools. And I look at them, "What are they doing?" And they're gaming, and they're obsessed with it.

Esports was not something that I had intended to do. But as I started seeing it offered the impact I wanted to have, I was drawn to it. I am the least likely leader of anything in scholastic esports. I'm surprised to be here, but I'm so proud to be here as well, to share with you the experience in Florida. This is disruptive learning, innovation. And you need to hear from those who are doing it: why they have selected it, and how it’s going. 

Chris Carranza, Miami-Dade County Schools

When esports came to us, it gave us an opportunity to listen to our students, meet them where they are, and engage them. That's our key; keeping our kids engaged has allowed us to be able to earn the “A” school district from the State of Florida for two years in a row.

We don't do anything if it's not aligned to our standards, if it's not aligned to academia. Three months ago I had no idea what esports was. Now, we have ten high schools that have jumped into it feet first. The goal for the upcoming school year is that these ten high schools are going to drive our esports group and open it up to all high schools in the 2020-2021 school year.

Our goal would be all 50 high schools in the upcoming school year will have access to esports. We believe in it because our kids want it. Simple as that. This is not meant for a 46-year-old middle-aged guy, but I can tell you that when I speak to my twins whenI go home, they see it and they see the value in it. And I use it as a Trojan horse. Students are going to get what they want, but we're going to give them more: something entrepreneurial, some IT, digital literacy, and social aspects. That of course is what academia wants, and it’s there in NASEF. 

Jane Whittaker of St. Lucie

Well, just like Chris, six months ago, I didn't know what esports was. And our district is very small, completely opposite of what Miami-Dade is. St. Lucie County has about 40,000 students, we have 42 schools, six comprehensive high schools. We had actually met with two different companies last year that had esports leagues. Then I happened to talk with Laylah and she said, "Have I got a man that you have to meet." I learned about Gerald Solomon, and NASEF. And from there in six month's time, we have full support from our school district: our superintendent is 100% behind this, our Chief Academic Officer, our Chief Operating Officer who is also over our IT Department. What we're really excited about is we are kind of taking a different route - than maybe some of the other districts are doing. We gained approval to redo our media center at the high school, which is about 25 years old,. As part of that, our district has designated capital funds to include an esports lab for our students.

So, we've been able to purchase 14 Gaming Stations, MSI units; for those people who are gamers out there you might be familiar with those Hyper X Headsets. Six months ago I had no idea what any of those meant. But the things that you learn - just to see the excitement in our students! We actually have two campuses for this high school and we planned to discuss it at lunchtime. Set up a form on Microsoft, we had students come and sign up. We thought, "Oh, maybe we will have 50 kids," and it ended up that 148 kids signed up for that initial interest!

And  these kids! I mean, they are emailing us constantly, “When's our next meeting? What's our next step?” What does this mean for us? We know that this is a game-changer for our schools, and so what this means for St. Lucie County is really putting an opportunity out there for our students to learn to be collaborators and problem solvers, and be good teammates. Just imagine all the skills that they're going to learn and take away from this experience! We're excited to be a part of this strategic planning team, to get this going in Florida and really look forward to presenting next year where we are.

Heather Hanks from Hillsborough

Our journey started about four years ago. I was a Computer Science teacher at my former high school. My students had “genius hour” projects and our hardware track. And so in that genius hour project, I had students come to me wanting to start an esports tournament. They had plans to set up all the computers and what they were going to do, and we just couldn't get the approval at the time. But they wouldn't let the idea go and about a year-and-a-half ago, they said, "We really want to compete." They'd found this online league and they wanted to play. And so we started that way. What we found with the online league was that it was validated with college recruiters and scholarships; there was a formal structure outside of just our school and my kids kind of making stuff up. My administration really got on board and got excited about it.

Once we started getting key players in our area involved, it really started to snowball. But we realized as the kids started playing in an online league that they weren't really getting the experience that we wanted. What NASEF started to provide was online coaching. And their structure said, "Hey, when you play, you should play in school and you should play together." We moved away from just “Okay, we are playing in a league online for college scholarships and recruiters.” Now our kids still have those opportunities doing NASEF, but we also have built structures to play locally. 

The kids got to set everything up. So we had tech-heads setting up computers, we had kids running the brackets, we had kids cleaning and helping run it, and we had kids who had made flyers. Everything from the event aspect, they had to do. That's what's so important -  in the NASEF scholastic model the kids are doing this.

In 17 states throughout the country, it is a varsity sport. And we can treat this as a sport with the benefits that come with the social-emotional learning from anysport, representing your school and the pride that comes from these kids. We just had a tournament on Saturday, and parent said, "My kid would never represent the school in any way, my kid would never be a part of a club, my kid's autistic, he would never be able to do something like this, if it weren't for esports." And in addition to those benefits, with the scholastic model, they're not just players. Students are doing everything else around it, and I think it's so important to bring that scholastic model out because in NASEF, our kids are running it all. 

Amy Bonnahan from Volusia

The other part of this that I thought was powerful is the equity. Some students are playing at home; my kids have access, but lots of kids don't. And we're leaving them behind if we don't give these opportunities in our schools. Some kids are going to say, "Hey, I want to do this." "Hey, I want to further my career." This is where they can get that. The marketing, all the other pieces: the IT, the marketing, the teamwork, all those soft skills, which in our district we say soft skills aren't that soft. They're very strong, we need soft skills. So we've started, a little bit different, we actually previously had four high schools that were running this type of tournament. We now have six high schools starting, and we have two middle schools who are going to fight each other out in League of Legends so they're very excited - they’ve both got about a hundred middle school players!

Eric from Broward

All of the things that have been spoken about regarding making those connections to social-emotional learning, to academics, are extraordinarily tangible and valid. 

There were a few internet studies that showed that over 70 percent of students, college levels and down, identified themselves as gamers. Seventy percent! That means that there is no chance that it's just a boy's club. It's not statistically possible.

However, sometimes the online gaming community isn't always the safest place for the women who are playing those games,and it isn't always the most inviting place for women. While there's a lot of conversation around, NASEF is actively making sure that women understand that there's a place for them in this, that these career fields and these opportunities are there for them.It's also about teaching our young men to respect and recognize those contributions that those women will have to their teams, to their partnerships, to their communities, and to the gaming community while we still have a chance to get them. This program absolutely allows for that.

Kathleen Schofield from Jacksonville STEM Ecosystems

I started as a skeptic, but I started looking at what was going on. I visited our Microsoft store where I knew there were people who are heavily involved in gaming, and I just started listening to what was going on in terms of esports and the huge, huge industry it is. Then I also started noticing other things like, not this Olympic cycle but the next one, esports is going to be an Olympic sport! Then I started seeing what's going already with some of our schools and some of our districts, and I found that in Duval County, which is about the sixteenth-largest district in the country, they already had informal small groups working on esports. They had esports teams especially in some of our schools in the urban core.

So, we had a great opportunity. Our local boys and girls club was opening a great new team center and they had come to us to say, "How do we make this the most amazing place for teens in our city?" Then lights and bells and whistles started going off and it came together that esports would be a place, and that we should bring this to the Boys and Girls Club Teen Center. 

So we met with the Executive Director, Laylah, and we started thinking about academics. We started thinking about career development, we started thinking about all the jobs that went into that. While Duval County isn't quite as big as any of your districts, I work directly with seven districts, and we impact collectively well over 200,000 students and we have almost50 high schools in our region.

As somebody who came in thinking, "No, I don't see this," I have really grown to where now, by just learning and listening and being exposed to it I have figured out, yes, this is a really great fit for our kids.

The impact of what we can accomplish with our force as an esports league is massive. We're also seeing a group of people that are friends and colleagues and we're building this together. This is not typically what you would think of, competitive districts, they are collaborating districts.


FLSEL is an example of an entire state, some of the best school districts in the country, who have over a million kids - all doing it a little bit differently, but doing the work collaboratively to make a difference for the kids to get them back into the seats, to get them back into the learning, and to give them the opportunity to do something great.

Activating a Club in Your District

If you’re interested in getting a scholastic esports program started in your school district, campus, or community-based organization in the state of Florida, please contact Laylah Bulman at laylah@esportsfed.org! We’d love to help with any questions you might have and can get you started quickly and easily. 

If you’re from another part of the country and would like to take advantage of NASEF’s free resources, or if you’d like to join others in your region to form a larger affiliate like the one in Florida, email info@esportsfed.org

1Edited for clarity and understanding when reading.