Interview: Dr. Brooke Haag, New Member of the WWSEF Board of Directors

Dr. Brooke Haag joins us for an interview to talk about her qualifications, experiences, and plans as she joins Todd and Clint on the WWSEF Board of Directors.

Brooke has a wealth of experience in the education space, spearheading many STEM projects in her previous roles. She believes in the power of exposing students to STEM subjects at a young age and getting them invested by showing them practical applications that align with their interests.

What drew you to NASEF?

Well, I was at Microsoft working on the skills and employability team. Actually, I worked for Microsoft education as a STEM evangelist. So it was my job to look at why STEM is important and to be able to communicate that story to our customers and partners.

Conversely, I had to take information from the world and from my knowledge as an educator and communicate that back to the company so that we had products and offerings and things that could be useful to folks in education. I would say the throughline for me, really of my whole career, prior to Microsoft I was a community college professor, was how do we help prepare students for the future, in work and otherwise?

My career has always involved empowering students in various ways. To get to the NASEF point, I had gotten interested in esports; even before my time at Microsoft I was a big fan of game-based learning. I learned a tremendous amount about game-based learning at Microsoft working with Minecraft and prior as a student at Harvard. I worked on a game called ecoXPT that taught ecosystem science, which is really complicated but super awesome. So I was sold on game-based learning in general, but then I was introduced to esports at Microsoft. So I got interested in esports and thinking about it as a really unique way to meet students where they were at.

One way that we refer to it around NASEF is esports as a Trojan horse for many things, for helping students with lots of skills. I got interested in esports and learned about NASEF when I was connected to Gerald, NASEF’s executive director, and Laylah, NASEF’s director of partnerships, and I learned about what NASEF does. Up until that point, I thought esports was cool and it made a lot of sense for Microsoft, but I hadn’t found that hook. How does it help prepare students for life, for work, and for employability? NASEF was the first time I saw that very clearly spelled out. It brought into perspective how amazing scholastic esports is when you do the work to really implement it.

I want to backtrack to your time at Microsoft – can you talk about some of the STEM projects you did that were showing value to other companies?

I guess the first thing that's top of mind for me is the esports project that we put together at the very end of my tenure at Microsoft. We ended up collaborating with an amazing company called Immersive Minds and put together seven esports worlds and a very comprehensive esports framework, which included perspectives from educators like James O'Hagan and folks that are very tied into esports and education.

We were able to launch these singular worlds particular to Minecraft Education Edition. Basically, anybody globally, and I think right now there are about 100 million licenses in schools for Minecraft education edition, can download these worlds and compete for free. This was sort of a first-of-its-kind experience. Prior to this Minecraft Education Edition did not have experiences built specifically for students to compete. 

I'm very proud that we had the opportunity to put those together and launch them and that anybody that wants to use them can have them for free. Some of those resources have influenced and have been used by NASEF in their Minecraft activities as well.

You have a lot of experience in STEM courses through your PhD in nuclear physics. So how will scholastic esports help bring students more into the hard sciences? Will it make it easier for them to understand and grasp those concepts?

Yes, that's a great question. Thanks for asking.

Going back to why I was so drawn to NASEF—seeing the research that was done through the Connected Learning Lab and UC Irvine, really looking at the learning outcomes, we see that STEM values, STEM career interest, and STEM engagement all increase when students participate in esports. 

For me, that is key as an educator. First of all, one of the things that makes it challenging in a STEM class is that students have to find value in it. They have to believe that they can do it, and there's got to be some sort of intrinsic motivation. So I think just even exposure during these esports experiences, is great for them in that regard.

If esports can give students early engagement with STEM, by the time they get to high school and they are being asked to take STEM classes, like chemistry, physics, and higher level math courses, it could be that they are a little bit more primed to persist and to believe in their identity as a “STEM person”. That's major.

The other thing is, of course, is the employability ecosystem around esports. You may have students, that because they have gotten into esports, maybe they get into the IT space, the backend of gaming, and of course, that's very related to STEM and computer science and sort of looking at the technical portion of the ecosystem. On a related note, you have students that care about improving their performance by looking at data. That's data analysis, that's data science. So there are direct ties to STEM just by participating in esports. Even the introduction of these ideas to students, taking that and parlaying that in education maybe, again, bringing relevance to what you do in the classroom because you're participating in this experience outside the classroom.

Very cool. Do you have a favorite game that is the most realistic when it comes to physics?

(Laughs) Well, the first game that came to mind when you asked was Rocket League. It’s not realistic, but I have often thought to myself it would be really cool and totally doable to do some analysis to figure out things like: Are the collisions elastic or inelastic? What is the value of g, the acceleration of gravity in this game? Does it vary? There are all kinds of interesting physics questions you can ask in a game like that and it just gets my head going because I’ve been in physics for so long.  

Under the hood, you have folks that are designing a physics engine to drive all of this, and that requires a knowledge of physics. I had a friend of mine who is an engineer come to me and say, “Hey, I'm interested in making this app and I need to approximate drag forces. How do I build in drag forces?” As it turned out, I was able to tell him very step-by-step how to do it. It's a pretty simple algorithm that you can do, but that's physics and that's kind of a very simplistic approximation of a physics engine under the hood of an app.

So, there you go. If you want to design a video game you're going to have to know some physics and you're going to have to know algorithms and computational thinking. If you get into game design that will lead you down that road. Again, that’s this connection between esports and gaming and careers.

So in addition to your work at Microsoft last year, you did a virtual summit for industry experts on Mixer that went very well. Are summits like that part of your plans for NASEF as you step into this board member position?  

Well, that's a great question. So we've talked about my expertise, being a former educator, and being heavily invested in physics and STEM in general, I think that I bring that lens in as a board member. I’m super passionate about STEM education and good education in general. I feel like right now what I'm trying to do is just figure out how I can bring that expertise to help elevate what's currently going on.

For example, the Beyond the Game challenges are awesome. I'm looking at ways that I can help with Farmcraft. Maybe that is being an advisor in the STEM sense, maybe that is connecting products—and by products I mean there's a whole project going on right now at Microsoft called FarmBeats where they’re looking at how you connect and use the Internet-of-things to help farmers. Can we use some of the ideas from this FarmBeats project and develop some Beyond the Game challenges? 

That said, I'm very open to learning as much as I can about what NASEF has been doing. I knew a lot as someone on the outside, as a fan, and as a collaborator, but now I'm getting such a great point of view as a board member. If there comes a time that I can help to put together an event, I’d be thrilled to participate. I will say that I'm very impressed with what NASEF has done prior and I think there's been great success with the UCI Esports Conference and similar things. If there’s a need or space, I’d love to participate in that. I think right now I’m in  learning mode.

Awesome, so the last question I have for you is what do you love most about your esports, gaming, or scholastic esports experience?

Gosh, I thought about this before we talked and one of the things that resonated for me is being a woman in physics I felt a little bit anomalous. I don't know if that's too big a word for it, but I wasn't your typical physicist when I started doing physics. I was someone who had to take a physics class in college because I needed it for my major and I just ended up being inspired by the professor who is amazing and was encouraging and told me I had talent and should maybe pursue this.

It turns out that one kernel of support and interest took me all the way through a PhD and into a cool career. I actually came back to that department and that same professor mentored me. He retired and I got to run the department. It was a really great experience.

But being in physics has often meant being in a space where I didn't see a lot of people like me. As I moved up the ranks in physics, my classes involved fewer and fewer women. I think it's interesting, there are many women in esports, but I also think that, at least in earlier days, it was a field that was dominated by men.  

For me, I'm passionate about this for the same reason I'm passionate about gender equality in STEM. I think there should be gender equality in esports. To speak to my personal narrative, it was something that emboldened me to be a woman in STEM and in physics and to persist. To just stand up in front of other women who were thinking about being in physics and to say, yeah, you can do this too. If I can, you can.

To some degree, esports feels to me like physics used to, it makes me a little bit nervous to try something new. When I saw the work NASEF was doing, I was fangirling out, but I didn't have a lot of experience. I played Minecraft. But when a colleague at Microsoft pointed out I played video games and that qualified me as a gamer, it really made me feel empowered. So in a similar way, I'm finding my way in this space and I think it's important and I want to be an example for my nephews and my niece. I want my niece to be able to look up to me and see that she can participate in all of these different things. That any person, of any gender, of any defining characteristic should be included in this space.

That’s something that drives me. It’s intimidating to get into a space that’s new. But I'm excited about it. I never played Rocket League before, but I downloaded it and just started trying it. So that's one foot in front of the other. I'm learning and I'm excited to bring my STEM expertise and my passion for outreach and learning. That's another thing, I love to learn and this is a huge learning opportunity for me to be involved with NASEF. I feel honored to be on the board and excited to see what we’ll be able to do going forward.