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Communities / Education / STEM

In Philadelphia, kids play Minecraft while getting their homework done

A high school educator started an after-school esports program to build STEM knowledge for Port Richmond kids.

Our Lady of Port Richmond students playing Minecraft. (Courtesy CyberCrunch)
Brandon Washington dreamed of creating youth esports programming.

The Philadelphia resident remembers discovering his passion for graphic design after a family friend gave him a computer. Now, he wants to pay it forward and give young people access to technology. A, he originally set out four years ago to launch a collaborative community space in South Philly called 1901. It aimed to offer STEM education opportunities to local youth and host community-focused programming for the surrounding neighborhood. After four years of ups and downs, Washington is finally seeing his goal come to life via an after-school esports program for fifth graders at Our Lady of Port Richmond.

“I can say hey, you can make a life out of gaming, you can make life out of playing on computers, let’s figure out how to do that,” Washington told Technical.ly. ”It’s about exposure.”

The after-school program focuses on world-building game Minecraft, Washington said. Minecraft Education, which allows Washington to teach a variety of subjects in the virtual environment, comes built into the game. Minecraft also allows league competitions so the students can eventually compete with each other.

The program runs for two hours after school two days per week. The four students in the program start with half an hour of homework time, then go through Minecraft Education lessons and finish up by working on their virtual Minecraft classrooms.

“Eventually I’m gonna have them build the whole school in Minecraft,” Washington said. “The cool thing is how they work as a team to do it and practice communicating and then setting objectives and the overall excitement is contagious.”

Years of fundraising and making connections to build the program

In December 2020, Washington started raising money to secure a space to host youth programming at 1901 Washington Ave. He ended up raising over $15,000 in his initial efforts, and opened the space in May 2021 to begin hosting STEM workshops and community events. He launched a second fundraising campaign in the fall of 2022 to continue to build up the space.

Around the same time, Washington connected with Joseph Connors, VP of business development at electronics recycling firm CyberCrunch, who offered to donate TVs and monitors to the 1901 community space. Connors’ commitment to helping Washington comes from wanting to help kids engage with STEM topics and think about possible career paths from an early age.

“The driver in my mind was Brandon’s passion for helping the kids,” Connors told Technical.ly.

But Washington left the 1901 project in 2023, and started looking for a new space to host esports programming. After consulting with Connors about where to go next, Connors connected Washington to Our Lady of Port Richmond, a middle school in the neighborhood, and provided Washington with eight laptops for the kids to use.

Even though Washington had to change his original plan, he is still accomplishing his goal of exposure to gaming and STEM, he said. However, he isn’t giving up on his dream of bringing a space to his own neighborhood in South Philly. He wants to use the program at Our Lady of Port Richmond as a model for other similar initiatives moving forward.

”From my previous experience,” Washington said, “you got to do the programming first. You got to create the reason before you express the vision.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

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