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Westridge Middle School's Partnership with USC Games Inspires Future Designer
Posted 04/11/2019 05:24PM

Above: USC Games designers present their game Plasticity to Westridge students.

Recently, students from the University of Southern California (USC) Games program (the only interactive media and game design program in the country with 50% female enrollment) visited Westridge as part of a newly launched partnership between the two schools created to promote interest in game design among women and girls and cultivate female leaders and mentorship in the industry. The USC students joined Coding & Game Design, a 7th and 8th grade elective aimed at teaching girls to code through gaming.

The partnership opens a two-way door for both schools, providing a unique opportunity for collaboration between college and middle school students. A behind-the-scenes look at the life of a female game designer is an invaluable experience for students in the Coding & Game Design class. Additionally, many of the USC designers’ games—including Plasticity, the game they brought to Westridge last semester—are designed for middle school-aged audiences, and what better way to understand this group’s needs and interests than to work directly with the budding coders at Westridge?

“Our students were so excited,” said Miller of her class’s play-testing experience with USC. “They had questions and suggestions and feedback, and it was very cool to watch the USC students take notes and soak in the experience.” Next, Miller plans to take the Coding & Game Design class to USC to see their facilities and talk with college students in the program, and even see or play-test more USC projects in development.

Westridge is the only school that USC has partnered with in this way. The collaboration came about when Westridge parent and the Chair of USC’s Cinematic Arts Interactive Media and Games Division Danny Bilson reached out to Westridge Upper School Director Gary Baldwin, interested in forging a partnership with a girls’ school due to the program’s unique position of having significantly higher female enrollment than average gaming programs. Bilson described the USC program as being focused on innovation, valuing diversity and inclusion, and credited Director of USC Game Innovation Lab Tracy Fullerton with the program’s current commitment to gender parity (Fullerton has gone on record in several recent articles to say that she believes the way to change the “boys-club” culture of the gaming industry is to diversify the production teams).

Above: Westridge parent and the Chair of USC’s Cinematic Arts Interactive Media and Games Division Danny Bilson

Freshman Jadyn I. ’22 who took Coding & Game Design in middle school last year, said that she’d always loved playing games, but never thought about designing them until she took Miller’s class at Westridge. Jadyn, along with three of her classmates, was accepted into the Summer 2018 University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) game design summer program, where she said she learned about 3-D modeling, world-building, and programming. “Westridge has given me all the resources I need to pursue game design,” she said. “The field doesn’t have a lot of women video game designers, and without Westridge providing the opportunities for girls to pursue game design, I never would have realized I wanted to.”

While currently the USC Games partnership is mainly focused on the middle school, Miller hopes that as it continues to grow, it could involve the Upper School. During their initial campus visit, the USC designers also dropped into an AP Computer Science Principles class.  

“When the USC students came to [AP Computer Science Principles] to present Plasticity, I became a huge fan of their game,” Jadyn said of the visit. “I thought it was so cool that they made something so professional and emotionally impactful. I got to talk with [USC student designers] Michelle Olson and Amy Zhang during their visit and got their numbers. I got interested in and applied to USC’s Introduction to Video Game Design summer program. Ms. Miller wrote my recommendation letter and was super supportive.”

“Jadyn is a perfect example of why students taking computer science in the middle school is so important,” Miller added. “The key to getting girls involved in computer science and coding is to get them engaged early and help them realize they can do this. When they start coding in the middle school, they see that it’s not intimidating, and we have students like Jadyn who discover a new interest, and then have the opportunity to pursue it. The female voice is so needed in all these fields, but gaming specifically. I think that it’s not enough for girls to be consumers of technology; they need to be creators.”

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