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On Youth Mentorship and An Inspirational Game Changer: Rodney Allen

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Our daily development blog series for the alternate reality game, The Source, continues with the perspective of Rodney Allen, a youth mentor for “Team Rhino.” Rodney is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

 

There should be little debate about the fact that The City of Chicago has too few youth centers and after school programs that serve its youth. Research shows that youth who are consistently involved in such programs have a lower propensity to engage in risky behavior. These behaviors include lack of discipline, engaging in drugs, sexual deviance, and the list goes on. The simplest and most effective element in reducing, and in many cases erasing these behaviors is the reduction of idle time. There aren’t many programs that possess the common sense to extend their services in a manner that is innovative and relevant, yet challenging and exciting to youth. It should be noted that The Source has the potential to be the premier program to offer these intangibles and more.

Summer 2013 marked the year that University of Chicago professors, staff, and students selected a group of 142 students to participate in the six-week pilot of The Source. Students were selected from throughout the city of Chicago with emphasis on the South Side, and were as diverse as the city itself. The Source model is rooted in interactive STEAM studies and is formatted to influence critical thinking, diverse team dynamics, and freedom of expression as related to completing challenges. The challenges were created and instituted by The Source’s game designers whose focus was to manufacture an array of games with solutions that could only be found through techniques that came from science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

As youth mentors, our job was to assure a safe and nurturing experience. In my professional experience The Source’s staff was well prepared and offered an exceptionally structured support system for its mentors. This coupled with fact that the games were based around a central story that allowed the mentors to engage students in a manner that not only encouraged STEAM solutions for phases of the storyline, but served as conduits for the encouragement of STEAM careers. There were numerous instances when I found myself saying to students “these are real life situations that require real life solutions, and you could one day have one of these real life positions.” 

I thought that the manner in which the games were designed was complex and innovative, yet there wasn’t one instance where our students didn’t focus, engage, and find the solution. This can be attributed to the vision of the staff of game designers. Without them being a collective group of visionaries with a knack for developing strategies for the bottom line, I would not have been in position to influence students with words to encourage them to pursue STEAM careers. As the program progressed, its game design and the solutions that student groups worked to find were often a reciprocal learning process. From my perspective as a youth mentor, this was most fulfilling. My fulfillment came from intuitively knowing that because the reciprocal process had begun; there was a strong possibility that it could be duplicated in the future.

The model developed by The Source’s staff sets the foundational groundwork for its youth to engage in critical thinking when there are no adults present. This model also makes me hopeful that as a result of their involvement with The Source, students will be inspired to study and embark on STEAM careers. This is the piece that serves as hope that students who participated in The Source will one day become STEAM professionals who will return to their communities to mentor the youth of the future. At that time many of them will be ask to reflect on their experiences just as I have here. My hope is that they will benefit as I have from the reciprocal educational process of youth mentoring, not mirroring but expounding on my experience.

Those of us in academia hold one common truth that is significant. None of us can say that we have made it to where we are without the support, nurturing, and resources of caring adults. These people came in the form of professors and staff similar to The Source’s. They came in the form of student colleagues and mentors similar to The Source’s. It is for this reason that there should be programs that mirror The Source’s STEAM model throughout the country. Many students that participated in this game came from disadvantaged locations in Chicago. This is but one of the reasons that The Source should be commended for extending an exceptional model to them. Although 2013 was this alternate reality game’s inception year, the quality that The Source provided has set the standard for youth centers and after school programs in The City of Chicago. I would grade this program with a B+ for programming and situational structure, and an A for the program model and design.  For a program that is in its pilot year, The Source was nothing short of exceptional.