Marshall School kicked off a winter STEM Symposium series with a stimulating morning conversation with Dr. Chris Jones, a project manager for Microsoft and the teacher of our AP Computer Science class. Jones works in Seattle and teaches our students virtually. He was in Duluth for the last three days to take his students to the Fargo Microsoft campus to meet with the programmers and discuss career paths in computer science.

Today Dr. Jones spoke with faculty, administrators, and some special guests on the connection between programming, role playing games, and preparation for STEM-related careers.

By 2018, he said it is projected that there will be 800,000 new high-end computer jobs in the United States. Five of the 10 fasted growing jobs will be in the computing field.

Unfortunately, as Microsoft Great Plains site manager Don Morton told Marshall students Thursday, “We don’t know what kind of jobs you’ll be doing in the future.”

This disconnect — between the knowledge that the field will need workers but uncertainty about the exact types of jobs that will exist — is a challenge for people who would like to think of a career path as a linear process.

Jones said that he viewed understanding basic programming as a way to develop core logical thinking skills that can be likened to learning chemistry, biology, and physics. While future jobs might not map clearly to any particular course, the skills learned in computer science will no doubt be useful in areas that are becoming increasingly technological — such as medicine and engineering.

If he viewed understanding computer science as a logical step to providing base STEM skills, Jones then discussed his own personal emotional lens — role playing games (RPGs). The skills learned in gaming, he said, are much more applicable to the uncertainty that our students face. Rather than being linear, RPGs are organic and call for user customization. In addition, they demand to be explored and they encourage risk-taking. In many ways, this might mirror the experiences that our students will have as they patch together a quilt of courses, skills and experiences to create their own career paths.

This sparked a lively discussion with the group about motivation and the role of failure in both RPGs and our schools.

gameification

The lessons schools could learn from RPGs is a hot topic in educational circles right now. They are explored in a little more depth in this six-minute interview with programmer Jane McGonigal, author of the book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

In the end, Jones said, that the unknown future of STEM jobs will demand the same types skills necessary for success as are needed in role-playing games: self-motivation, life-long learning, and an understanding that failure is an essential component of personal growth.