Game: Pachinko, Designed by Sam

On Jan 25, more than 30 District 65 middle school students showcased 24 arcade games at the first Cardboard Carnival held on the first floor of Evanston Public Library (EPL).  Working by themselves or in teams, the students designed and built the arcade games, using cardboard, micro-circuit boards, sensors and motors.

Then, District 65 elementary students were invited to attend and play the arcade games and win tickets for prizes. More than 90 youth, accompanied by their parents, came to play the games.

Everyone seemed to have a great time.

The middle-school students designed and made their arcade games in three different after-school programs, Kirby Callam, Director of EvanSTEM,  told the RoundTable. EvanSTEM is a District 65-led project to coordinate STEM curriculum and programs in collaboration with 10 Evanston organizations.

First, he said, EvanSTEM, EPL and  graduate students at Northwestern University McCormick Engineering ran a targeted program at Family Focus for underrepresented STEM students in seventh and eighth grades. Students who participated in this aspect of the program visited Nickel City Arcade in October to check out the arcade games there to get some ideas for their own games. After that, workshops were held at Family Focus in November, December and January to help students learn how to use cardboard to make the structure of their games and basic coding skills needed for motors and sensors.

Second, EvanSTEM funded MetaMedia at McGaw YMCA to run a specific Saturday program for underrepresented STEM sixth-grade students.

Third, “We opened up the program to be citywide with free workshops at the Library to support all Evanston middle schoolers to participate” said Mr. Callam.

“The central goal for this effort was to create a fun out-of-school showcase for students to develop and present their engineering prototype skills, focusing on cardboard engineering and the use of coding and circuit boards to run motors and sensors.”  

Once they finished making their games, students could submit them for consideration in the Cardboard Carnival.  At the carnival, arcade games were judged based on originality, creativity, construction, artistic design, use of motors and sensors, and fun. The young participants who played the games also voted for their three favorites.

Many of the arcade games showcased on Jan. 25 contained a flat board with pegs, cardboard slats, and/or a rotating pinwheel that would block the path of a marble dropped from the top of the board. The strategy was to drop the marble at the right spot and time so it would avoid those obstacles and land at the bottom of the board in a space that provided as many points as possible.

Another variation was to shoot a marble with a type of catapult or sling shot. Yixuan, a sixth grader at Nichols said he and his teammate Mingche designed their version of a slingshot after seeing one on an arcade game on the field trip. “An important thing is also imagination,” Yixuan said. “If you don’t have imagination, you can’t invent stuff.”

Mingche added, “We learned to work together as a team, and we learned how to build a strong cardboard structure so that it wouldn’t break.”

Russell, an eighth-grader at Chute said he came up with a couple of ideas after taking the field trip. “I learned a lot doing this project. I learned about programming, and connecting it to a motor.” Another challenge, he said, was “figuring out how to make it sturdy.”

Yousuf, a sixth- grader at King Arts, who helped out on one game, told the RoundTable, “It was a fun thing to do. I enjoyed it a lot. I learned new ideas and skills. I learned how to program better.”

Many students made a pinwheel or fan-like object to spin around to knock a marble off its path. They had to code a circuit board to do this. “The coding wasn’t hard,” said Sam, a seventh-grader from Chute. “I learned how to connect a motor to a circuit board. It wasn’t too complex, but there was a learning process.”

He added he liked the helpfulness of staff who assisted him, and added, “It was really interesting and fun.”

Elijah, an eighth-grader at Chute, said, “The coding aspect was really fun because you have to code this little switch board to do exactly what you want it do. You can’t leave any vague commands, because then it won’t do exactly what you want it to do. … And the wiring part of this was really fun.” He said it took a few times to get the wiring right.

Sammy, Casey and Annika, all sixth-graders at Chute, said they liked working as a team. Sammy said they learned how to use different types of code. She said they learned how to adjust the speed of the pinwheel in their game through the coding.

Casey said, “What I liked about this project is learning the different ways we could brace the cardboard to make it stronger.”

Annika said she liked being able to experiment with the ball drop and to make adjustments. “It’s kind of like a puzzle to build it because you have to find what works and what doesn’t.”

“We saw students struggling last year during the sixth grade Climate Action STEAM project to create mechanized prototypes, so the challenge was for us to find a way to get students to build these skills while doing something fun,” explained Mr. Callam. “We also know middle schoolers like to create and then showcase their efforts to the community. It’s why YouTube and TikTok are so popular.”

“Last spring,” he continued, “Tyler Works, Teen Librarian at EPL, suggested creating a cardboard putt-putt golf course for a fundraiser event. That idea tied with the Cain’s Arcade story from eight years ago spurred us to put together the Carnival.”

“At first, we thought we’d get five or six games completed for the carnival, but the students really showed up and stepped up to participate. Next year we expect to double the number of games to 50 and host it in a larger space to accommodate the crowds,” said Mr. Callam. “ETHS field house, here we come.”

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...