I believe that one of the most important things a teacher can do for their students, especially in their advanced classes, is to provide them with the opportunity to experience real-world interactions with industry. While this may not always be a possibility, doing so helps kids understand several important things.
First, it allows students to connect skills they have learned in school to real-world applications. Quite often, the lessons kids learn in school represent little-to-nothing more than a grade to them. By using these skills while collaborating with an industry outside of the school setting, students come to understand the importance of the skills and techniques they have acquired in a classroom directly relates to their future outside of it. For example, while it is great that a kid can solve for an unknown variable using a mathematical formula on paper, the same formula takes on a whole new meaning when it has implications on where a student needs to place their equipment to properly register movements using a motion capture system.
A second benefit is providing understanding of how to interact as part of a team. As educators, we often require our students to work on group projects in order to simulate being part of a team. However, this often does a poor job of simulating team work. There are always some students who learn quickly that they will have at least one team member who refuses to accept a low grade and that individual will often compensate for students who do little to no work. So, they will get a good grade for minimal effort. This is not how being a team member works in industry. If a team member puts in minimal effort on the job, this can dramatically alter the results and often they will lose their job. So it is important that students learn to pull their own weight as part of a team before they experience such negative consequences after graduating from high school.
Another thing teachers do is provide feedback to students on how to improve their work. But, quite often, students do not take that advice to improve their product. There are many reasons for this such as they are satisfied with the initial grade, perhaps they are just being lazy or are overwhelmed with other classwork so they don't want to put in the extra effort to improve their work, or maybe they let their ego tell them that they are the artist and their finished product is exactly what they wanted to create, so they refuse to hear it can be improved. Regardless of the reason, one cannot ignore the requests of a real-world client. Students learn quickly that they are providing a service and what that person wants is what needs to be done, regardless of personal feelings towards doing it. In other words, they learn to let go of their own biases and egos to satisfy the client's needs or risk losing business or their job.
You might ask, how am I as an educator doing this with my students? In the middle of this past year's third quarter, David Stein from Duke University approached me about having the students assist in a year-long project he submitted for a grant to State Farm. The grant involved actively engaging students in creating a virtual reality walk-through of an abandoned prison that is being flipped into usable community space in rural Laurinburg, NC by the nonprofit group, Growing Change. While this piqued my interest, I had some concerns but definitely wanted to hear him out.
Also, one might ask how does this project correlate with what my students have learned during their time in the game design concentration at DSA? Students will use skills gained going all the way back to their freshman year in Scientific Visualization and continuing right through their junior year. They will need to do a lot of 3D modeling, programming using the Unity game engine, texture creation, audio editing, and communication with both all involved in the project in and outside of the class as well as sharing their project with the general public. Luckily, the students each had an area that caught their attention and selected a role that meets their personal strengths.
As I stated earlier, I had some concerns about this project. The big concern involved having the students work in the Unity game engine using components that have recently been added to allow for virtual reality development. The kids have less than six months of experience working in Unity and it is not one of my stronger areas of knowledge either. Luckily, David connected us with Josh Setzer and Mike McArdle of Lucid Dream VR to assist us. They are located just a few blocks from DSA in the American Underground and their company focuses solely on the use of virtual reality technologies. So their knowledge and expertise will be greatly appreciated and this did away with some of the concerns I had before meeting them. It also helps my students learn how to work with a team that is not necessarily all in the same room, so good communication skills are essential!
So, when do we get started on our project? Immediately! Since the class these students were in this past year (Advanced Game Design) is currently in pilot status and the skills needed for the project are related to the curriculum but not necessarily directly in it, we decided to start preparing as soon as we decided we wanted to do the project. All progress on repetitive tasks came to a grinding halt and each student started to focus on the skills they will use as part of the team. Some students began working on improving their graphics skills. Several explored the use of low-poly count modeling techniques, a skill that is essential to making the models look realistic while minimizing the amount of system resources needed while another student explore how to create realistic 2D textures to add to the models. A couple of kids continued working in the Unity game engine so they will be ready for creating the walk-through. One student explored audio editing and musical composition and the final student began working on how we will share our progress with the public and school community. In short, the students are forming a functional team based on their individual strengths!
We also had the good fortune to take a field trip down to the prison during the final week of the school year. While there, the students had the opportunity to learn more about the site's history from the founder of Growing Change, Noran Sanford. They could also explore some of the locations on the site and take reference photographs as well as gather some basic measurements. This trip was an eye-opening experience for the students as it solidified their roles in the finished product along with what they will need to accomplish.
So, overall, things are coming together. I am sure I will discuss our progress over the coming year in my blog. So, come back here to learn how my students' experience in working with industry for real-world clients continues to change over time and improve their understanding of how their education translates into employable skills.
I skipped last week's post due to several reasons outside of my control. So in this post, I want to talk about something that is a touchy subject for many individuals both in and outside of education: standardized testing.
Over the past week and a half, our school has been deep in the throws of final exams. It's that time of year that everyone both dreads and looks forward to simultaneously. According to individuals who clearly know better than me, standardized tests are the culmination of a year's worth of hard work where students demonstrate mastery of the skills learned. They also claim standardized testing shows how effective the teacher has been in preparing those students for their future. But what I think of when I consider these exams is hours spent in mindless, almost robotic, activity demonstrating memorization of terms but not mastery of anything. Now, bear in mind, that I can only speak on the exams given in my area of study, but I often hear other teachers complain about the same thing. So, you might ask, why do I feel this way? Let me explain.
As a game design teacher, I understand that it is important for students to know terms and definitions along with other background information about the industry. I mean, how else can I expect them to talk intelligently when comparing mechanics used in different game systems, discuss the tools an audio engineer utilize when creating sound effects, or explain the rationale for saving images in both native and rendered formats? Clearly, this information is critical to success in comprehending what we do and why we do it. So, standardized tests sound like a good way to test student knowledge! You would think they could identify which tool/term is being used when given a definition or scenario in which a task is being completed. So, once again, you might ask, then why do I feel this way about standardized testing?
Being a CTE teacher, I am very focused on preparing students for careers in industry. And, to be frank, terms and definitions are simply not even remotely on the industry's radar. Having spoken with several professional game designers, along with company recruiters, one glaring thing comes across as the most important thing they look for: what can you DO! College degrees and background are irrelevant, skills are not. Nor does industry care much about what the state crams into many of our yearlong curriculum, especially since course requirements rarely get updated more than once every 3-5 years. We all know technology doesn't take that long to progress and neither does industry. Heck...the current Sci Vis curriculum still requires students to know rudimentary information on 3.5" floppy disks! When is the last time you used one of those? And, like industry, the best teachers refuse to wait that long to update the material and lessons used in their classrooms. Updating curriculum as we go does a better job of preparing students for life outside of our classroom walls, even if this knowledge does nothing or has a minimal effect on preparing them for standardized testing. In fact, doing so often burns through time that is needed to introduce students to the tested material in our often over-inflated curriculum. And, personally, it absolutely kills me to share outdated information with my students solely because it might appear on their final exam. So, I tend to preface such material by saying that although the students will likely never see this information outside of school, they might need to know it for their exam at the end of the year. Then, we move on again.
Don't get me wrong, I fully believe that having good background understanding and well-rounded knowledge of the industry as a whole is important to forming a better student and employee. I am fully invested in this belief. But, standardized testing, which can often make or break a student's ability to proceed forward in their education, simply does not demonstrate mastery of the material, it only shows rote memorization. And, much (though clearly not all) of that material is already dated within a year of curriculum being released to teachers. It is easy to learn terms and definitions with the old drill-and-kill method of studying that many of us used years ago to pass exams back when we were in school. These are the reasons that I find (most) standardized testing to be a gigantic waste of time and resources.
Here's something to ponder: think back to when you were in school and had to pass that all-important exam on, say, world history. How many of those facts do you still know today and of those that you do remember, how many do you regularly use in your life now? I bet the answer is very few, if any at all. How has being able to identify information on a multiple choice test improved your life as a person, citizen or employer/employee? I bet it hasn't. That's not to say that a basic understanding of the concepts you learned in those classes hasn't made you a better person. It's the overarching concepts and skills, not the specifics, that made you a more well rounded individual and a better person. Not being able to identify who signed any particular treaty or what year something happened.
Yes, students should be tested on understanding of material at the end of the year. But, these exams should include some form of hands-on demonstration of skills combined with a more comprehensive display of knowledge rather than low-level thinking such as identification of a term on a multiple choice test., especially in classes such as those taught by CTE teachers. Then, and only then, will my opinion of end-of-year exams change with regard to their ability to demonstrate student mastery of the information and materials they are presented in our classes.
So, as another school year draws to a close, I wish all students a restful summer. I look forward to seeing you again next Fall in my classroom where we will continue exploring the skills and tools used in the game industry.
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.