An Old Game Meets New Tech: Creating Connections During Remote Schooling by TJ O’Donnell, Pearl Creek School

In Fall 2020, faced with the challenge of conducting Pearl Creek Elementary’ s Extended Learning Program remotely, I turned to chess to help students connect with each other. As a longtime school chess club sponsor, I knew how much fun students had playing against each other, so I just needed to figure out a way for them to play online. I invited students to play using a copy of a shared google drawings template during Zoom sessions with ELP students enrolled in Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s e-learning and BEST homeschool programs. I was happy to find that, even remotely, I was able to hop from game to game and give advice or settle disputes as they arose. 

A screenshot of chess game being played in Google Draw. Google Draw.
Pearl Creek Elementary students learned to play chess online with each other remote learning.

It worked! Students liked it so much that games sometimes extended beyond the ELP session. Students would often have more than one game active with different classmates. Some even started their own games by copying the template and sharing it with willing friends.

I realized that I could leverage the excitement of playing virtual chess into a 3D design project that students could work on from home. Making use of my classroom 3D printer, I tasked students with creating their own chess pieces using Tinkercad. Students practiced designing with parameters for size. For example, they all had to fit within a 2cm wide rectangular prism, with maximum heights assigned to each particular piece. 

Computer screen showing chess pieces being designed in Tinkercad.
Students used the online Tinkercad tool to create their own chess pieces.

Once a student completed designing all their pieces, they checked them over both for sizing and to make sure all parts and pieces were touching to result in a single piece for the 3D printer. After students made adjustments, I pulled files from each student’s cloud-based Tinkercad account. The chess sets were printed in the ELP classroom on Pearl Creek’s Makerbot Replicator Mini+ (for which the PTA had generously approved a grant to fund the purchase of additional filament). I sent photos and videos home so students could share in the excitement. 

A student's hands sanding a black chess piece next to a tray with the other chess pieces from the set.
Once back at school, students were able to sand and refine their 3D printed chess pieces.
A set of yellow chess pieces featuring large wedges of cheese on top sitting on a wooden chessboard in front of the 3D printer.
One student, an enthusiastic fan of cheese, designed pieces to celebrate their favorite food.

In spring 2021, FNSBSD began offering in-person classes. Back in the classroom, students were able to fine tune their pieces, sanding where necessary and hot gluing when the sanding proved too robust. Each set was completely personalized, so much so that students sometimes needed a key to keep straight which piece was a rook and which was a bishop! One student, an enthusiastic fan of cheese, designed pieces to celebrate their favorite food. Another built their design around a beloved baseball team. Having practiced remotely, getting to sit across a chess board in-person while using their own custom chess pieces was a real treat for these students.

Once complete, student were able to play in-person games with their custom chess pieces.