Lifelong Teaching and Learning

Alumnus Creates Innovative Career with Education and Entertainment Technology 

John Balash ’05 has spent most of his life on one side of the desk or the other.

Balash started at Notre Dame College in 2001—the first year the College became co-ed and enrolled men— and graduated with duel degrees in fine arts and graphic design with a post-graduate educator licensure. And he did it all in four years.

But that was only his first stint as a postsecondary student. More recently he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a master’s degree in entertainment technology, which he uses with his undergraduate preparation in art, design and education to create instructional video games.

Balash said some find it unusual that he uses entertainment technology for educational purposes, but he knows as technology continues to grow, it will eventually find its way into the classroom.

He wanted to be at the head of that class.

So Balash recently found himself back at College Road, where as an adjunct instructor he taught the new Introduction to Game Design (AR225) course for the first time during the fall 2014 semester.

He has worked extensively with Rachel Morris, M.A., associate professor of fine arts and chair of the art department, to create a new game design concentration at the College. The concentration in the graphic design major is based on a curriculum Balash helped develop as part of his master’s degree program.

"It was a lot of work, not so much on my part, but for Rachel Morris," he said. "I knew all the material, and I knew why it should be here. But she’s the one that really pushed it through. I may have planted the seed, but she took care of it and let it grow. I can take no credit for that."

But he can take credit for an innovative educational path all his own.

In Front of the Desk: John the Undergraduate

Balash’s passion for education runs in his blood; he comes from a family of teachers. In fact, his older sister, Rebecca Balash ’94, also attended Notre Dame She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education. In addition, his father taught French at the high school level.

But Balash said his dad imparted so much more than just a modern language.

"He was a great inspiration because what I saw was that his students were not just learning French. They were learning more about themselves and more about the world around them, and that is just naturally inspiring for me," Balash said.

"I had some tendency towards education, so having him to shoot ideas off of, you can’t get any better than that," he added.

Balash also praises the devotion his father had to his faith. He said his dad still prays for his former students.

"My Catholic faith is really important for me and my family. I think no matter how far or where life has taken me—overseas, to California— it’s the one thing I can find strength in. And it keeps my family and me together," he said.

So Balash enrolled at a small Catholic college as an undergraduate. He said he made many close friends at Notre Dame, particularly with the students in his graphic design courses.

"Everyone in that program stuck together for all four years, and we knew each other so well, which was a really, really cool thing because we were from diverse backgrounds," he said. "I still talk with all of them, even though we are in different parts of the world, which is pretty cool.

"I think the small classroom size allowed for such great relationships to form," he continued, "and I don’t think that magic happens everywhere. And honestly, it affected my life years and years later."

Behind the Desk: John the High School Teacher

Before he graduated from Notre Dame, Balash started working at Grand River Academy, an all-male boarding school located near Balash’s hometown of Geneva, Ohio, where he taught art, among other courses.

Like most of his students, Balash boarded there, too.

Although he was still in an on-campus educational environment like when he was an undergraduate, Balash said Notre Dame and Grand River were definitely different—particularly since he was responsible for looking after a dorm full of high school boys, when he was right out of the residence halls himself.

"It’s always interesting when you have responsibility," he said. "So to always constantly have that was trying sometimes."

But Balash learned to manage the trials while he taught in the classroom. And he would often engage students outside of class by building Lego models and playing disc golf with them on campus. Both were new to the high schoolers at the time.

"These are all very weird specific things that I enjoy doing," he said. "I would get a good group of students who have no ability and they—for whatever reason—wanted to try this out. It’s hard to say ‘Let’s go on and do this activity that you are not good at, and you’re going to enjoy it.’ But it worked."

Balash discovered then that teaching is a lot of learning.

"The cool thing was we found common ground," he said. "I think forming that environment where students had my back and I had their back—I think that was the most memorable thing."

In Front of the Desk Part II: John the Graduate Student

After working as an educator at Grand River, Balash decided to further his education. His interests in art and technology, as well as Lego models and disc golf, led him to Carnegie Mellon University.

In his coursework, Balash and his classmates often would take various problems and solve them by putting them into video games. They created entertaining programs that dealt with measurements, balance and socio-emotional learning.

"Educational games are really hard to make," he said. "The trouble is you have to figure out if you’re teaching. So you have to do an in-game assessment and you have to see if you meet certain standards and you have to measure that all while making it fun."

Upon the completion of his master's degree in entertainment technology, Balash had the opportunity to co-direct the National High School Gaming Academy in Pittsburgh. After that, he moved to California and taught after-school programs, among other endeavors.

But his desire to learn, as well as teach, was calling him home to Ohio.

"There comes a point where you ask yourself, ‘Where do you go from here?’" he said. "Where is the next step? Can you achieve the next step with what you are doing now?"

Behind the Desk Part II: John the College Instructor

Balash came back to Notre Dame because he sees a need for innovative uses of technology and art in education. And this small College could be just the place to try to start a movement.

"Our educational landscape is changing so much. Our teachers have to change, and our teachers have to be prepared for what lies ahead—and that clearly involves technology," he said. "More so, it involves the creative use of technology, and I would like to think that some of the stuff that I’m doing could stoke the fire of creativity in our teachers."

In addition to his teaching and developing curricula at Notre Dame, Balash works for ClassOwl, an early stage education technology company, creating a web and mobile app to help students and teachers stay organized and manage time effectively.

He has kept his own professional skills sharp through recent work with companies like Playpower Labs, Stempower and Science Friction. Balash also has designed educational games of his own, including Beanstalk and one called Sleepy Busy Party, which explores the misconceptions in the mental models of the day/night cycle in secondand third-graders as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) ENGAGE project. The ENGAGE program of the U.S. Department of Defense explores software- and data-intensive education and training methods to optimize instruction for large populations.

Now Balash wants to learn to grow the new program he helped bring to Notre Dame—by teaching the new game design concentration classes.

"It’s been awesome seeing familiar faces and places. I look forward to making an impact on the very establishment that has contributed so much to my learning," he said.

As for the future, Balash said he just wants to continue learning, whether it be teaching at Notre Dame or another college—or pursuing another degree.

"That’s my battle plan," he said. "I think as long as I still have the desire to learn, I think that I’ll still be in the classroom—on one side or the other."

***

This story was written by Rob Harris ’14, who was a student of Balash’s at Grand River Academy.

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