A new pop-up shop has emerged in the Hemingway District that is challenging kids in science, technology, engineering, math, and more — and along with playing video games, they’re learning valuable lessons that can help them later in life.

Heph Ed Incredicamp is the brainchild of Steve and Sheila Conner — their coding classes are more like hangout sessions where learning comes naturally.

Steve Conner said in a recent interview that the idea is to “make learning the most fun, engaging experience [students] can possibly imagine.”

At Incredicamp, students build remote-control cars and drones, build their own video games using professional-grade programs and are exposed to digital arts, dance and martial arts — all with a technological twist.

“It’s not about learning by rote or teaching a test,” Conner told Wednesday Journal. “It’s about the experience and the love of figuring things out.”

Conner’s new pop-shop — the location could become permanent — isn’t his first foray into educating Oak Park’s youth in the STEM fields. Heph Ed Incredicamp has been embedded in the Oak Park school system for several years, bringing the fun of learning technology directly to students.

The Oak Park-based company also is working with Oak Parker and Loyola University Professor Makio Iwashima to develop a video game that helps students learn the basics of immunology.

Iwashima and Conner recently secured a $150,000 grant from the National Institute of Health to develop the pilot game, which pits players against cancer cells in the body. 

Iwashima, who teaches microbiology and immunology, said he came up with the idea for the game after seeing students enter the university with little understanding of the concepts of immunology. 

“Most high-school students are taught about biochemistry and neuroscience but not immunology,” he said. 

He noticed his kids’ interest in video games and concluded that he could use that kind of enthusiasm for education. 

“A lot of things can be learned playing those games to understand the concept,” he said in a telephone interview.

The pilot program will teach kids about immunology with one test group learning by traditional methods and the other through the prototype video game. 

“The basic structure of modern teaching is reading and teaching the test,” Iwashima said. “Maybe we can make it more interesting and make more students excited.”

Conner and Heph Ed Incredicamp are working on the excitement part, developing a game that he says will involve virtual reality and augmented reality.

“In a typical gaming world, we would be inside some virtual world, running around, trying to attack or trying to go after an enemy, which is fine, but I wanted to push the envelope,” Conner said, noting that people now jump between various platforms in their daily lives, transitioning from computers to phones to virtual reality headsets to books.

“All of these things are happening all at one time, so to me the language of story is no longer about being in one of these environments, it’s spreading it across all of these things; therefore it becomes much more dynamic,” he said.

Conner wants to transfer that concept to the world of teaching. 

“What if you were in a world where you were inside a vein or inside a body and you saw some cancer, and you had to fight it, and then you had to come outside the body to actually work in a petri dish or work with a microscope?” he said. “An immunologist has to do those things, so you go into this other world, which is inside the body, but then you have to jump outside of the body to actually use real-world objects.”

Conner said he believes the idea of incorporating gaming with learning will have kids coming back for more — like with the classes and workshops he currently teaches.

It’s not an abstract concept for Alex Gossett, an 11-year-old student at Brooks Middle School, who is learning to build his own video game at Incredicamp.

“Dark Fire” a game he built over the course of a few days challenges players to navigate a maze of fire. Touch the fire and you’re dead. “This is what I spent the first day on, learning how to make a simple game like this,” he said.

The handful of classes already has the young student hungry to learn more sophisticated computer codes, so he can enhance his creation.

“I’m going to have to learn JavaScript and HTML to go to the next level,” he said.

His father, Nile Gossett, said his son can be so laid back that it can be a challenge at times to know where his interests lie. “He’ll come home and doesn’t even tell you what he’s doing,” he said with a laugh.

His son is into video games like most kids his age.

“What we’ve been pushing him on is how do you take that and combine it with other things you care about?” Nile Gossett said. “All innovation comes from putting things together. That’s what I thought he got out of here.”

Conner said he’s working to keep all of his classes innovative and meeting kids where their interests lie. He recently began a conversation with Bolingbrook-based dancer Mady Garcia, 12, and her mother, Melissa Garcia, to develop a dance routine that involves a synchronized drone performance. 

“They can make it a performance,” he said. “How does dance figure into STEM? Well, there’s a lot of mechanics to dance not to mention biology, but when you add in quadcopters and motion capture, all of a sudden we’re getting into physics and engineering, all sorts of amazing things.”

tim@oakpark.com

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