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A&S Researcher Uses Video Games to Teach High School Students 

By A Fish 

Photo of students
High school students participate in Camp Kiki Academy. 

LEXINGTON; Ky. — Gaming and esports have grown in popularity over the past few years, but gaming also is being used as an educational tool. Kishonna L. Gray, a professor of Writing, Rhetoric, & Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky, has been working with under-resourced students to teach them team building, communication structures, peer mediation, conflict resolution and other skills through the art of game development. 

“What Camp Kiki Academy does is it provides a curriculum.” she said, “The class is a gaming class, but they learn different skills inside those gaming classes. We wanted them to build the capacities that may have gotten a lot of them in trouble before. The decision-making part, confidence, self-esteem, so we've integrated a lot of the things that the programming integrates those kinds of concepts” 

Juniors and seniors in high school are beginning to explore opportunities that will be available to them after graduation, and Gray hopes to lead them down the path that is right for them. She encourages them to investigate the University of Kentucky and what is available there, but she has also had visitors come to Kiki’s Academy and talk about professional development, specifically options besides college and introducing them to LinkedIn. 

“Some of them say that college is not for them, but I want to show them multiple paths.” she said. “OK, but we can still give them the schools, skills, and tools so they can figure out what kind of jobs do they want. We'll reverse engineer and if that's the job you want, this is the path that you need to take to get there, this is what you need to be doing now. We recognize that not all students are going to go to college, but we have a responsibility to our community to help students with whatever path they may take.” 

Gray grew up in Kentucky in an underprivileged area. She is committed to Kentucky, and these students. She sees herself in them, explaining that she was the kid that needed the second, third, and fourth chances in school. The program's goal is to serve under-resourced populations in the Appalachian region and make sure that students who traditionally can't afford to pay for camps or don't get invited to the fancy science camps have a pathway for them as well. 

“I notice a lot of times people think that Kentucky is all the stereotypes, and these stereotypes drive people's assumptions and perceptions about Kentucky,” she said. “I'm big about the counter narrative and reframing the narrative and reframing the story. I want to make sure that the students have that confidence to be proud of where they're from, to be proud of their hoods and hollers.” 

Kiki’s Academy began as the brainchild of Gray and Kim Beatty, a UK student affairs officer. They struggled to secure funding for it, until she reached out to Niantic, the company that created the Pokemon Go game. 

“What I learned from my grandma is closed mouths don't get fed and I believe that," she said. “So  I had reached out to different folks to fund something, but nobody had any money. That's OK, I understood that but there's something that we can do. I started emailing different companies to say, ‘Hey I'm trying to run a camp for summer, for kids in the area. Can you help? Niantic was like yes, we can. Then I just wrote up this proposal and I told them what I wanted to do and then and they funded it.” 

Gray describes this program as a pilot; they’re currently working with one school at a time. With lofty goals, she hopes to scale up the capacity of the program as it has already seen much success. The need for the program arose when Kishonna noticed many programs are one-size-fits-all and she believed that many students needed more support than these services could provide, specifically in topics that related to science and math. 

“I'm building capacities in young folks who often get overlooked with the things that that I'm doing.” she said. “If you want to volunteer with us, share your time and your talents with these young folks they would appreciate that as well. Once they see adults invested in them, that means a lot to them that people still care about them regardless of what their circumstances are. Seeing that people still care about them and are still invested in them, that really means more than money and more than anything.”