When Rick Brennan was a classroom teacher, he learned that not every student can be effectively taught in the same way. But when the content is presented through a game, interest and involvement increase and everything changes. So, he launched an instructional design firm based on a STEAM powered model. Histrionix is now winning grants and awards because others are having success with Rick’s program too. Could this be the future of education?
Video and Full Interview Text
Amber: Hi I’m Amber Ambrose and this is The BusinessMakers. Joining me today is Rick Brennan of Histrionix; let’s find out more. Good Morning Rick, thank you so much for joining us.
Rick: Good Morning. Sure, thank you for having me.
Amber: So tell me, what is Histrionix?
Rick: So Histrionix is Houston-based, STEAM powered, teacher-owned instructional design firm that sees students as creators, teachers as designers and education as experience. We believe that experience is the best teacher and that’s no shot at teachers.
Amber: No, experience is my best teacher throughout life. It’s true.
Rick: Yes, exactly, exactly and I was a long time teacher myself and that’s why I say that. I taught for 13 years and that was my dream job before I had this job. So again, it’s no shot at teachers, but if we imagine let’s say a design-thinking teacher sort of thoughtfully designing a lesson or a course with the end in mind always…
Amber: Sure, so goal-oriented.
Rick: Goal-oriented, you have the vision in mind at the beginning of what the students will be able to do at the end and you sort of reverse engineer your approach from there so you’re building towards that vision each step along the way. If you’re folding in new knowledge and skills, as you should as a teacher, then that experience becomes part of who that person is.
Amber: So is Histrionix doing this?
Rick: So we sort of hit those goals in many ways. One way we do that is we work with a variety of partners and what we do is we build learning programs with them, for them, that take that approach. So oftentimes we’ll fold in ed technology, oftentimes we do projects or game-based learning.
Amber: Okay, like video games?
Rick: Like video games and video game making, but also sometimes just simple game design and it might be a board game.
Rick: I can give you a real life example that sort of exemplifies some of those.
Amber: Sure, I would love that.
Rick: So one of my clients is Writers in the Schools, or WITS, which is a group that teaches creative writing to K – 12th grade. What they do is they sort of put to work some of the great writers in our city. Sometimes the writers are in the U of H creative writing program for example, and they need work and they want to impart their knowledge on that next generation. So when we sat as a project team we started to think about what are the things that WITS wants to accomplish with a new approach; they wanted to sort of reach into new realms with technology and maybe make their programs steam-based by folding in technology for example.
Amber: Really quick, time out, what is STEAM?
Rick: So STEAM versus STEM is an important point. So STEM is something you hear about all the time; Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. And so to a large section of folks that is the future of public education (Amber: Absolutely, yeah), focusing on those four fields and sub-fields within those. We’re big supporters of STEM but we like to add arts to it and say STEAM (Amber: gotcha which is a similar approach it’s just you add the arts.
Amber: Sure, yeah getting back to your story, sorry about that.
Rick: Yes. So by folding in new technology like Gamestar Mechanic, which is a videogame making online platform, we were able to take their tried and true approach to teaching and learning that has great success and they’ve had over 30 years as an organization. But we added this new element which took their program to a different place.
Amber: Sure, and probably a – maybe a different audience?
Rick: Maybe a different audience because we were trying to reach reluctant writers even. Sometimes kids - unfortunately there’s so much testing in public schools that with writing it’s oftentimes seen as very formulaic or I have to learn how to write so I can pass the test.
Rick: But when you can take a different approach and say well look, let’s turn your story into a videogame that you can then create and build yourself and then publish online so that…
Amber: People can play it.
Rick: Yeah, so that the hundreds of thousands of kids who play Gamestar can play your game, give you feedback and you can go back and improve your game.
Amber: I mean you’re almost creating little entrepreneurs too inside of this whole concept.
Rick: Absolutely because with Gamestar you can actually create a digital portfolio that holds all of your games and all of the ratings and all of the feedback that you get. It also shows a real world application to writing; not that there aren’t many, there are obviously lots of ways (Amber: infinite) that you could make a living as a writer. But an emerging field is maybe a game designer and a writer for a game script even. So it opens up lots of new opportunities for the kids; they can’t wait to get to write in class now. And what we have found, because we’ve done some testing on the program, that the addition of the videogames some people would say well is the writing still as strong? And we’re seeing that the writing is not only as strong but that their attitudes towards writing change and improve.
Amber: Absolutely. That makes sense.
Rick: So it’s been a great success. We’ve only been doing this program for a little over a year now and in that one year span.
Amber: And tell me about the big thing that just happened!
Rick: It’s actually a series of big things (Amber: okay) because we won a big grant from The United Way from the very beginning so that helped us get some summer programming going this last summer in spaces that we wouldn’t normally be. But in between that we also won a Houston Arts Alliance grant for innovation in education for this program called WITS Digital. I t was a highly competitive grant; it was all Houston-based, I think there were over 50 applicants and we were one of two that won.
Amber: Oh wow. So step one; step two…
Rick: Yes, that was a huge win and then so that gave us the confidence to apply for a national NEA grant.
Amber: Which is National Endowment for the Arts.
Rick: National Endowment for the Arts – and it was a Creativity Connects grant so it’s an idea that you take this really creative idea that’s working locally with a public and private partnership, like WITS and Histrionic, and then you scale it and nationalize it and take it to other places so that those great effects can be felt by other students.
Amber: So you guys won a $100,000.00 grant.
Rick: We won that grant. We were the only public/private partnership team in Texas to win this grant and we were 1 of 37 who won nationally. It’s a beautiful thing for us as a partnership team it that means that all the good stuff that we’ve seen in Houston we’re going to now have the opportunity to take elsewhere around the country.
Amber: Speaking of games I know that within your Histrionix as a whole, the umbrella that is Histrionix, you have your own game that you created as a teacher; I would love to hear that story. And it’s called…
Amber: Not to be confused with Histrionix.
Rick: Which it often it, so yes, yes.
Amber: Don’t confuse it people. It’s different.
Rick: So Historia is a Social Studies simulation and strategy game that teaches Government, Economics, Social Studies, History, cultures and so much more than that because the teams – the students work as a team. Basically the idea of the game is that students in teams are role-playing as a government and they’re starting a new civilization from scratch 5,000 years ago.
Amber: Okay, is it always the same time period where they’re starting?
Rick: Well you can personalize it. So if your class doesn’t cover that ancient history you can sort of skip forward. So the kids are in governments and they are deciding how to invest their currency, their resources, into things like science or military or public works or exploration, infrastructure and they’re creating a country from scratch. But then their country lives alongside all of the people and places that live in a traditional history text book and they meet all of those people. And so those meetings can be either positive experiences, like trading opportunities or economic development, or war unfortunately is a part of history too and so and so it could have a military conflict. They have to be prepared for whatever happens. So they’re reading the book with intent ahead of time so that when these dilemmas pop up they are ready for them and can make their decision. With any game the fun is the fuel, right?
But they would take the learning to places that I could never even imagine. I tried very hard to be the best possible teacher I could be and what I found is when I folded in games – I mean I tried everything, I wanted to reach every student every time and I could never do that. With games that all went away, it was like it electrified everybody. Everybody was into the game. And so I had this sort of a-ha moment of well why am I only having a few game days throughout the year? Why can’t every day be like a game? And that’s what started me on creating Historia as a year-long experience where if you’re not playing the game every day you’re preparing to play the game every day and it…
Amber: And you just happen to be learning while doing that.
Rick: It has the effects of maybe transforming people’s view on History and Social Studies and its importance. And that was when I started to contact videogame makers because I felt that I had stumbled on something particularly powerful and special. Miraculously they all said come to New York. Like within one day all the companies we reached out to invited us to come to New York.
Amber: And that was one way you kind of took your teacher hat and transformed it into entrepreneur.
Rick: Into an entrepreneurial, yes, effort.
Amber: You found something that worked (Rick: I did) and thought I can reach more people.
Rick: I could reach more people and I needed help to do that. So I think one thing that people don’t do is they don’t reach out to other people sometimes to get help and if I hadn’t done that I probably still would be wondering how could I make this happen. I was able to find a good group of people who did what I did kind of, but ask them for help. And after we met in New York one group became a partner of mine, that’s E-Line Media, and now we’re working together with Writers in the Schools and winning NEA grants. The other group is called Institute of Play, which is a think tank associated with Parson’s School of Design in New York, and they design game-based schools and game-based professional development. And teaching is a very tough job, probably now more than ever. Teachers need help and so I love the idea that I can help teachers make their dreams come true.
Amber: I don’t know that we can get any better than that, so on that Rick, thank you for joining us.
Amber: And I would love to check in with you a couple years down the road and see where everything’s taken you.
Rick: Please do, I’d love it.
Amber: Yeah, yeah.
Amber: Well, stay tuned to The BusinessMakers to see Rick in a couple years after you’ve watched this one of course. I’m Amber Ambrose and thank you so much for joining us.