THIS PACIFIC STREET TECH ACADEMY TEACHES KIDS PRACTICAL SKILLS USING THEIR OWN PASSIONS AND CREATIVITY AS A CURRICULUM
BY KATE MENARD
At Pixel Academy, members are given two rules to follow: have fun, and don’t do anything that will prevent other members from having fun. It is a commitment to these unconventional rules that leads to learning at this technology focused space for children and teens.
Born in New York City’s public libraries and schools in 2012, the academy established a home base on Pacific Street in Cobble Hill in 2013. A former senior game designer at Nickelodeon, CEO Mike Fischthal began his teaching experience with the company. Noah Berg, special operations and founding staff member, related that once Fischthal started teaching kids, he “realized that, with the right direction, they could make something so much cooler than he ever could.” From this belief, and an awareness of the relative lack of technology available in City schools, sprung the idea for the new learning space.
Unlike traditional schools, Pixel Academy is marked by _ uidity. Walls do not divide conversation or activities into classrooms; instead, in one open space, ideas flow freely under an umbrella of loosely categorized workshops. Developers, designers, and producers work alongside one another and work together.
About the teaching philosophy, at work Berg explained that, “there’s lots of overlap in topics when we teach, and that’s intentional, because no project can be just one thing. You’re probably going to need help from somebody else to make it good. You can totally code your own website. You can develop anything you want, but it’s going to need to look good, too. You can totally make your own video game, but it’s going to need a soundtrack.”
Curriculum content is driven by what kids see and choose to engage with on their own. Berg explained that “…the inspiration for all of our programs is just: this is something that kids would love to learn and know they can utilize.” For instance, the video game Minecraft has become an integral part of the programming. Staff members themselves have an intimate knowledge of the game—have played it the whole way through, looked at online communities, and developed their own strategies to make it “learnable.” Via a downloadable version of the game called Forge, written in Java, instructors show how to reprogram/modify code to make the game their own.
The Academy is also equipped with four 3D printers and a laser cutter. During camp this summer (both at their site in Cobble Hill and at a school in downtown Manhattan), kids learned how to design eyewear frames, and left camp wearing brand new 3D printed shades. The school also offers instruction in stop-motion animation, controller programming, and sound tracking and digital music. Berg spoke of one member he introduced to digital music production who, now a teen, is flourishing in the field.
“He’s become one of the faces of an underground music community through putting his work on Soundcloud and YouTube,” he said. “I like to think that we empowered him to make this a thing. We taught him how to DJ and how to make tracks.”
Berg said that both kids and parents appreciate Pixel Academy’s approach to learning about technology, adding that many of the members’ parents themselves work in tech or digital fields and are aware of how important what their children are learning is. With a member-to-instructor ratio of no more than 10:1, staff works to make a safe and nurturing space for its good number of members with special needs, too, helping them to come out of their shells and challenge themselves in new ways in an environment where they will not be singled out.
Designed for kids from six to sixteen, the Academy provides pickup services from surrounding schools, ensuring younger members’ safe arrival. It also cultivates ongoing partnerships with local schools, and has plans to partner with a non-profit called Girls Who Code in the coming years, an organization that works toward gender parity in tech.
163 Pacific Street / 718.522.3595 / pixelacademy.org