Arcata High School’s computer science teacher creates community for video gamers
Jason Sidell is an Arcata High School teacher responsible for their Makers Program and esports team. The Makers Program is a curriculum written by Sidell, designed to engage computer skills, wood shop tools and various other equipment to make anything the students want to create.
This year Sidell coached the Arcata High School esports team that played their first season this spring. Fisher Boroughs is one of the team’s League of Legends players who just started playing the game this season.
“He [Sidell] doesn’t know much about League of Legends,” Boroughs said. “He knew as much as me, which is basically nothing when it started.”
Sidell says it’s a lot more like an organized sport than people would imagine. It has all of the same stakes of ranking, a team name, regular practices and all of your fellow gamers sitting right next to you.
“It’s been more intense than I thought it would be,” Sidell said.
Anthony Womack is a senior on the Rocket League team and is in his second year of the Makers class. He describes the Makers class as an incredibly open environment where Sidell encourages students to follow their own ideas as well as giving those less inspired something to begin with.
“You’re just making your own independent projects,” Womack said. “That’s pretty much the only assignment, just make something.”
He recalls building an electric guitar from scratch as being his most impressive project he’s completed in the class.
“I would spend every single lunch inside the class,” Womack said. “I wouldn’t even eat most of the time because I would just be busy working on stuff.”
Sidell graduated from Loyola University in Chicago with a degree in biology but wasn’t sure what direction to take it. On a whim, he took a vacation down to Baja with a childhood friend of his, but when he drove his friend up to Humboldt County, he never left.
“I love the Pacific Northwest and the environment up here,” Sidell said. “I just fell in love with it.”
Like many others moving to Humboldt, Sidell had trouble finding employment. He first landed a dish washing job at Golden Harvest Cafe, then found work through AmeriCorp for two years.
“I made a lot of connections in education that way,” Sidell said.
He would lead backpacking trips on the Lost Coast Trail and can remember the positive impact it had on the youth who had never left the Northern Humboldt metropolis of Arcata and Eureka. Sidell began work on his Master’s in education focusing on curriculum writing. At the same time he began part-time work at another non-profit run by Carol Newetts, called Tiffany’s Garden for Children.
The program he headed was called CyberTribe. It was set up as a youth-run computer business where teens would teach each other how to use certain programs including graphic design and fixing computers. They would take on paying jobs from the community like graphic design and web design work.
“It was 20 years ago, but I still remember all those kids’ names,” Sidell said. “It was a really empowering experience.”
Sidell taught a variety of programs to the youth at CyberTribe, but a program that could be used to make video games became very popular. After seeing the interest, Sidell told his boss that he thought that it could be taught as a high school course. His boss agreed and Sidell created a six week module for the video game development course that he began teaching across the county.
“I think I’ve taught at just about every high school in Northern Humboldt,” Sidell said. “I remember one year I would teach in the morning at McKinleyville High, and then a class at Eureka High and then I’d end up at Fortuna High in the afternoon.”
After 15 years of work all around the county, Sidell settled down at Arcata High School where he wrote the curriculum for the Makers program after finding a grant focused on encouraging STEM at the high school level. The funding he secured solidified his own place at Arcata High, assuming that interest remained.
“It was a great feeling,” Sidell said. “Especially because I had been struggling year-to-year to maintain my job.”
Sidell believes he was meant to be a teacher and is passionate about creating a space that welcomes and respects his students. He believes that the best way to positively impact the world and leave a good mark on it is through teaching.
“If you can teach someone an idea and give them skills,” Sidell said, “that knowledge and information can be passed on through history.”