A press conference on May 17 signaled the opening of a new attraction at Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts that has been years in the making.
Ted Black, president and CEO of Whitaker Center, joined with board members, government officials and business partners to unveil the center’s new PNC Innovation Zone, a 7,000 square foot space that will be dedicated to educational programs based around video games, and the fields of study that make them possible – namely, science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
“Gaming is the breadcrumbs that will lead families and children here,” Black said. “We view this as a place where parents, caregivers, and children can come together for a very rich educational experience.”
When he was first hired for the position in 2017, Black had said in an interview with PennLive that “there’s an opportunity for us, not to just get into video games, but to engage at other levels that do fit more to the traditional initiative of the Whitaker Center.”
Today, Black said, the new “purposeful gaming studio” at Whitaker Center will allow for that engagement. The 2,000-square-foot space has the capacity for up to 30 gaming stations and 12 gaming consoles, with walls covered in 75-inch flat screen televisions, a high-definition 12-foot projection screen, and even tiered seating to allow for spectating.
The space will be used largely for scheduled programs and classes with school or other private groups, Black said.
“This isn’t an arcade, where you just come in and pay $10 an hour to play games,” he said. “Those exist, and you can do that at home. Here, it is really about the purposeful programs, so it will be camps, appointment programs, innovation 101, things like that.”
The approach is in line with the “breadcrumbs” philosophy behind the Innovation Zone. In our 2017 interview, Black had also made clear that “you don’t just let kids play a bunch of video games and walk away.” Rather, the goal is to engage the students by talking about both the computer science behind video games, but also the art in design and storytelling necessary for everything from “Minecraft” to “The Last of Us.”
“If a child is interested in video games, and they would want to consider how to learn to make their own video game?” Black said at the Innovation Zone’s opening. “Once they say yes to that, they’re saying yes to coding. They’re saying yes to storytelling. They’re saying yes to graphic design. It’s a very, very rich educational opportunity, and gaming just happens to be an entry way.”
The remainder of the Innovation Zone also now includes the Select Medical Digital Cinema, Whitaker Center’s 40-foot-tall digital screen. Black noted that once the cinema at Whitaker Center had transitioned away from IMAX, “that became not central Pennsylvania’s largest movie screen, it became central Pennsylvania’s largest computer screen.”
Jim Hoehn, board member of Whitaker Center as well as regional president of Central Pennsylvania for PNC Bank, said that the two group’s shared goals are for a more technology-literate community, beginning with students in our region.
“We see the full advent of technology in everything we do [at PNC Bank,]” Hoehn said. “Our whole future is meeting clients’ needs, and so much of that is through technology. And dealing with a lot of businesses out there, we’re also seeing a shortage of workforce.”
Hoehn said that through programs like the Innovation Zone, students can “become literate in technology the same way that you become literate in words. And be able to have successful careers in school, and then in life, with this whole effort.”
Both Black and Hoehn said that one of the goals for the new space was to engage with an older age group of students, as many of the science center’s programs were targeted towards preschool and primary school groups. The popularity of video games “help their kids stay engaged in learning for a longer period of time,” Hoehn said.
Whitaker Center’s new endeavor also involved partnerships with two major Pennsylvania-based technology companies, Philadelphia-based Comcast and Lititz-based Clair Global.
Through Comcast, the attraction has become a “Lift Zone” with free wifi internet service. The program is part of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which is designed to provide more people with easily accessible internet service.
“Comcast has partnered with Whitaker Center for several years,” said Alka A. Patel, vice president of government and external affairs with Comcast. “We understand very well how critical a fast, reliable data connection is to helping the PNC Innovation Zone function the way it’s designed to function.”
Production company Clair Global served to supply, install and integrate all of the new audio, video and lighting technology into the new space’s architecture.
“It’s always important for us to interact with the community as much as we can,” said Joe Bunting, vice president of sales for Clair Global Integration. “We think that it fosters the next generation of why we’re here – of the people that will come work with us, work for us, and work along side us, to go innovate in whatever capacity. Whether it’s in venues, whether it’s on tours, or whether it’s in spaces like this.”
Camps and classes planned for the Innovation Zone include coding lessons through games like “Minecraft” and “Bloxels,” building with “Scrap Mechanic” and “Poly Bridge,” and camps such as Girls in STEM and Surgery Live.
For more information on the PNC Innovation Zone at Whitaker Center and the connected educational programs, visit the Whitaker Center website.