Students at online charter school Utah Connections Academy build community through gaming
WOODS CROSS — Every Wednesday afternoon, after classes are over, more than 100 elementary school students from Utah Connections Academy plug in their PlayStations, power on their Xboxes and open up their laptops to begin building in Minecraft.
Unlike other children playing video games after school, these children are participating in a school-sanctioned activity.
“Who’s ready to get started? Just give me a hand wave or say it in the chat. Get pumped,” said Nate Gealta, a sixth grade teacher at UCA, during a recent meeting of the Minecraft portion of the school’s gaming club.
The UCA Gaming Club began a couple of weeks ago, Gealta said. Approximately 160 students from kindergarten to sixth grade play Minecraft, while 53 students from seventh to 12th grade play Rocket League. Secondary students are slated to begin participating in national Rocket League competitions with schools similar to UCA next year.
UCA is a Woods Cross-based online charter school, and during the pandemic, its numbers have grown — big time. Demand to attend the school was so high it received a waiver from the Utah State Board of Education to increase its enrollment cap in 2020. According to USBE enrollment data, UCA had 910 students during the 2019-20 school year, and that increased by 38% to 1,258 during the 2020-21 school year.
As numbers grew, the faculty at UCA began looking for innovative ways for students to socialize and get to know each other, despite working from home. The school holds Zoom talent shows and pet shows, but those don’t always give opportunities for conversation and collaboration.
“I was talking to some other teachers about ways to get our kids engaged and to let them interact with each other,” Gealta said. “We thought about things kids like, and the first thing that came to mind was video games, so we leveraged that and the rest is history.”
Bear Bankhead, a sixth grader at UCA who lives in Ogden, is a longtime Minecraft player. He jumped at the chance to join the gaming club with his classmates because building — what Minecraft players spend much of their time doing — with others, he said, is a lot more interesting.
“A lot of people building makes it very fun to find out what other people make,” Bankhead said. “It teaches you a lot about creativity and how to have fun with video games and it makes it so that you can know each one of your classmates a little better.”
The sixth grader noted that he has also developed a closer relationship with his teachers as he sees a different, more playful side of them. Gealta has noticed his connection with students grow, too, and said that he gets a glimpse of their creativity outside of the classroom.
“It kind of breaks down those barriers in the traditional student-teacher relationships,” he said. “I’ve found that I’ve become the student, I learn more from them about these games than I teach them.”
The interactions described by Bankhead and Gealta were on display last Wednesday as teachers and students, divided into three Zoom breakout rooms based on age, prepared to build gardens together on the video game platform.
A group of fifth and sixth graders exchanged Minecraft jokes with their teachers as they waited for a server issue to be resolved.
“How do Minecraft servers celebrate?” asked sixth grade teacher Sammie Malan. “They throw block parties.
“My sons are behind me — you see these two hooligans back here? They thought that was the worst joke ever,” she told students as they laughed.
A fifth grade student named Jonsie told a joke of her own: “How do Minecrafters get their exercise? By running around the block.”
The week prior, students had used Minecraft blocks to build their own houses. The gardens built last Wednesday were an add-on to students’ land plots.
Players described the outlandish homes they had built, as some considered demolishing theirs and starting over. One student, Georgia, detailed hers as a “hobbit hole,” while another student, Canon, said his looked like a mushroom.
“(These activities) help build that sense of community up,” Gealta said. “We’re not just people in our houses learning, we’re a school just like any other school. … It’s a really great solution for changing families in the pandemic.”