Excellent educator opens doors for students in computer science

Diana Penning stands with Dr. Michael Lofton, holding the Excellent Educator award

Diana Penning, a teacher at Spring Hill High School, has been recognized by Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, as an Excellent Educator and is partnering with the university to provide students with new opportunities in computer science. The title was awarded during the university's virtual Teacher Appreciation Week and honors Penning's work with the high school's computer science program, as well as the continued success of the school's Multimedia Gaming Club.

Spring Hill High School, located in Chapin, South Carolina, has hosted the Multimedia Gaming Club for six years. Throughout this time, students have led and organized meetings, letting their three faculty sponsors take the backseat.

"We are absolutely not the leaders," says Penning. "Adults have to exist to help run a club in order to manage money and to manage building logistics and things like that, but it is absolutely student-run."

The club meets monthly, beginning after school and lasting into the night. Club officers arrive early to set up the several categories of games, including card games, board games, video games, and anything pertaining to that month's specific theme. Prior to the pandemic, a monthly meeting had an average attendance of 75-80 students.

These large attendance numbers played a part in the school's recognition by Full Sail University, as Spring Hill High School contributed the largest number of teams to the Fall High School Esports Series. Penning promoted the tournament to students while club activities were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Spring Hill High School students and those enrolled in the five virtual schools could participate as a team or as a single player in a Fortnite or Rocket League tournament.

According to rising Spring Hill junior, Ethan Spencer, many students participating in the tournament benefited from prior experience competing against their peers at club meetings. "There's a lot of competitiveness [in] the Multimedia Gaming Club, making it a little more enjoyable for people like me." This after-school competition provided the necessary experience and practice for students participating in the tournament.

In total, 35 Spring Hill students participated in the tournament. At leave five of the 75-80 participating teams were made up of Spring Hill students. Of these five teams, one nearly made it to the tournament finals, coming in at ninth place.

Unlike other schools in the tournament, Spring Hill does not have a school-sponsored esports team. Their lack of an official team and their large participation caught the attention of tournament officials. Penning was contacted by Full Sail after the tournament.

"I randomly got an email from them one day," says Penning. "saying 'we'd like to talk to you guys some more about what you're doing up there and what's going on, and maybe introducing you to our partnership program.'"

According to the university's webpage, the Full Sail University High School Partnership Program is intended to "support distinguished high schools focusing on career and technical pathways within the entertainment, media, arts, and technology industries." Representatives from the university held a virtual meeting with Diana Penning and the principal of Spring Hill High School, Dr. Michael Lofton, to discuss the potential partnership. Spring Hill leadership viewed the program as a great opportunity and a way to build career pathways for students.

Through the partnership, Spring Hill students in the fields of computer science and engineering have the chance to receive a partial scholarship to Full Sail University. If a student takes three classes in Penning's computer science program and achieves the required GPA, she can recommend them for recognition by Full Sail.

Lofton says about the partnership: "If I could just get one kid to have that one opportunity, I think that would be a lifetime of partnership right there, that would be worth, you know, saying 'we had that one kid back ten years ago.'" Lofton believes that the partnership between Full Sail University and Spring Hill High School will bring more attention to the school's computer science program and highlight students' achievements in those classes. "To see the kids in [Penning's] classes really get excited about the opportunities that a program or a university like Full Sail could offer, that's where I saw more of the benefit."

Spring Hill High School is a public magnet school with five magnet programs, including engineering, environmental science, exercise science, entrepreneurship, and entertainment studies. Currently, the partnership is aimed at computer science courses within the engineering field, but Spring Hill hopes to expand this in the future, possibly into the entertainment track.

Students are also seeing the possibilities. Spencer says, "We have a lot of students that not only want to do things with video games, but also like to do things with the arts field. We have students who like to do graphic design, students that are interested in filmmaking, and Full Sail University is one of those schools that has a lot of those programs that allow you to do those sorts of things and come out with a full job, basically right after your degree."

In six years, the Multimedia Gaming Club has become one of the largest gathering places for students at Spring Hill High School, exposed students to the field of Esports, and opened doors for university education. According to Spencer, this is all paying off in the classroom.

"Because of the Multimedia Gaming Club, I feel more connected with the students in my classes more than anything. Especially those classes those students participate in. For example, in Game Design, a lot of those people are in the Multimedia Gaming Club, so not only do I get to connect with them on a more personal level, but I say that it also increases productivity."

Both Spencer and Lofton credit this progress to an Excellent Educator. Spencer says, "[Ms. Penning] definitely deserves that award... She is so engaged with her students. She loves her students. She's so actively wanting to work with them that it's just amazing."

Lofton says, "Ms. Penning... was in the corporate world before education, so she's not a traditional teacher. So I feel very blessed that she is here, because she has this unique background to really be able to teach kids what it's really like in that computer world."

Despite this praise, Penning remains focused on the change that the Multimedia Gaming Club and this partnership can have in the classroom. "That's just the best part of teaching what I teach," she says. "Just having students see the opportunity in their area of interest. That's the fulfilling part."

Multimedia Gaming Club members have shown interest in starting Spring Hill High School's first Esports team. Regarding the Full Sail University High School Partnership Program, Penning and Dr. Lofton hope to expand the offerings to other magnet tracks in the future. This program may also draw more students to the school who are interested in not only a gaming club but a future career in computer science.