I have always loved snow days. When I was in school, it meant a day off to play and frolic in a winter wonderland. We would build snowmen and snow forts, have snowball fights, go sledding and just spend the entire day enjoying everything that winter had to offer in New England.
Now that I am an adult and working in education, I find these days to be mixed blessings. Sure, I still enjoy the opportunity to take a day off and catch my breath, but there are consequences to doing so that I never realized as a kid. Sure, I knew we would need to make up the day, usually by extending the length of the school year, but there is so much more to it now that I am the one in front of the class.
Instead of taking a day off to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery, I find myself spending time re-arranging the lessons I had already planned out thoughtfully for timing and deadlines. Everything needs to shift...somewhere, some how. And usually we still need to cover the same material by the same quarterly deadline. Instead of the school year being extended for these days off, Durham works make-up days into the middle of the school year. Plans you make today for an extended break such as the Winter or Spring Breaks may need to be changed as you cannot always count on having the full time as originally shown on the calendar. However, I also use these days to create new activities for my students, catch up on grading, and sometimes (like now) do a little reflecting on how things are going at a much more relaxed pace than I would have if we were in school. I also make sure to take at least a couple of hours off from doing work, as I know I will be losing a day off at some other point in the school year.
It's not all bad. I hope my students and their families have enjoyed this extended weekend and used it to spend some time catching up on rest, catching up on work and spending time together as a family. Yes, there are definite mixed feelings about snow days as a teacher, but in short, I think they are the universe's way of saying 'I know you need a break, let's take one today!'
Creativity is a process. Creativity requires skill. Creativity involves risk.
In recent years, there seems to be a belief that there are big creators and there are small creators. Generally, the category that you fall into is based solely on the number of online followers you have. The #NoSmallCreator movement, which was started by influencer Cody Wanner, wants to put an end to the myth that there are big vs. small creators. All creators do the same thing: pull ideas out of their heads and drop them in a public forum for their audience's pleasure and/or scrutiny. Every creator has an impact on those who see their artwork, regardless of the medium used to create it. It is important to realize that while the number of one's online followers can be fickle, the process a creator goes through is not.
The creative process, regardless of who the artist is, involves realizing they have something to share, planning how to share that idea, CREATING it, and finally sharing their creation with the rest of the world, typically in some kind of online format these days. EVERY creative endeavor is a big deal. It doesn't matter if the artwork takes the form of video games, photography, sculpture, video, music, creative writing, or whatever. Creativity is an intimate look into the artist's innermost thoughts and feelings. For many of us who are creative, coming out of our personal protective shells is not an easy task and accepting criticism is difficult to handle. Doing so requires a lot of bravery. So, this is no small feat, especially for high school students.
So the next time you create something and share it with the world, remember: you ARE having an impact on someone, you WILL improve from the feedback you receive, and you are not a small creator regardless of how many people see your creation.
For more on being a creator, check out this short video from Cody Wanner in celebration of the unofficial #NoSmallCreator day:
As you may have read by now, I have been doing a lot of courses through the Adobe Education Exchange. I absolutely LOVE working with the Adobe applications and consider these free courses to be a form of both relaxation and potential source of lessons for my classes. This week, Adobe held it's annual MAX conference. This is an event where thousands of digital creatives get together each year to learn about the latest and greatest changes coming to the Adobe products. The other night, I was listening to the live stream when I got prompted to update my software. I like to stay abreast of the latest changes and therefore did so without hesitation. Well...that may have at least partially been a mistake this time around!
This evening, I decided to complete my second 360 degree video for the VR in the Classroom course I am taking. I opened Premiere and opted to import some footage I captured last weekend while hiking Pilot Mountain here in NC. To my surprise, the only thing to come into Premiere was the audio!
Panic mode set in immediately. So, I took to the Adobe Generation Professional Facebook group of which I am a member and through out an all call for assistance. Not being one to wait too long, and seeing another Adobe friend online, I asked what he knew about importing 360 footage and described my situation to him. As I pointed out, I had done this before and now none of my footage, even footage that didn't give me any problems, was experiencing this issue. His response: reinstall the older version of Premiere! His suggestion was quickly echoed by another expert from Adobe. Personally, I hadn't realized one could run multiple versions of the software simultaneously. Jim also shared a Spark Page he created explaining the process of doing so.
After a few minutes spent downloading and installing the previous version of Premiere, I was off and running again without any more glitches. Although I knew where the problem originated, it was good to learn that one can run multiple versions of the software without any conflicts. My finished video is below if you want to check it out.
This weekend, I had an amazing opportunity, I joined a small group of teachers from across North Carolina at Epic Games in Cary, NC to learn about the Unreal Game Engine!
Our visit started off with a tour of the facility or at least the areas that we were able to see, that is. The first stop was a hallway lined by framed examples of products put out by Epic Games over the years. I never realized just how far back Epic's history went. It all began with a map on paper in 1991 and a game called ZZT with all of Epic Megagames titles distributed on floppy disks. I was thrilled to see Jill of the Jungle from 1994 on the wall which I had received in a mail order package of games back when I was in college. Somehow, I never realized it was created by Epic! The "wall of fame" identified several game titles such as Jazz Jackrabbit, Unreal Tournament, Gears of War, Infinity Blade, Fortnite, and of course, the release of the Unreal game engine.
The hallway opened up into a large open space where we were first shown pictures of Epic's teams located in offices all around the world. Epic is a private company but they have several worldwide offices including teams located in Germany, China, Canada, the Chair team, and so forth. But, their Cary headquarters contains the largest collection of employees in a single location.
This large space was also their cafeteria. We were informed that at Epic Games, all of the food and drink in the cafeteria is completely free. Employees can work long hours and Epic doesn't want their employees to have to worry about leaving the site to grab a bite. This is especially important at crunch time, when employees are likely to spend very long days in the office. I also noticed they had some areas to help employees blow off a little steam: there was a climbing wall, a slide from the second to first floors and several tabletop games such as air hockey. It looked like the game room also gave employees a place to play video games but it was nice to see they had options that allowed them to do things away from a screen if they wished. I'm sure that is important when you spend all day looking at a screen and a break from it might be nice at times.
When our tour ended, we returned to a conference room for the meat of why we were there: getting some hands-on experience with the Unreal game engine from the experts who created it! The conference room itself was amazing. They had set up laptops with separate keyboards and mice for us to use along with snacks and swag to take home. The hospitality they expressed was amazing and something that we, as teachers, are not accustomed to receiving. It was definitely appreciated!
We spent the next several hours going through the game engine. We explored interface basics and how to move around in the engine, creating a basic projects, basic workflow and standard naming conventions, working with objects (actors) and using blueprints for coding actions. To be honest, it was a ton of information and I could have easily spent several more days just getting my feet wet with it. But, a few things were abundantly clear to me from this experience.
For starters, using Unreal is a lot easier to understand than the Unity game engine, which is what we currently use in Game Art & Design as well as Advanced Game Art & Design at DSA. A lot of the features overlap between the two engines, especially when when you look at creating environments. And, the basic tools are similar to other software students learn, such as 3ds Max. But, the biggest thing that students struggle with in Unity is understanding the basics of programming using the C# language. This is often the point of contention for most of my very artistic students and while they can follow the steps in a tutorial, I often find they don't understand why they are keying in what they type despite several weeks spent on learning C# coding. Unreal helps to destroy this barrier of entry using a method known as blueprints. Blueprints are a node based method of writing code using a more visual interface instead of keying in line after line of text. In other words, it is very intuitive. That being said, one can access the code itself and code away to their heart's content, but they don't have to for the majority (or even any) of the game development process unless they really want to. This by itself makes moving to the Unreal engine highly enticing.
The next thing I noticed about the Unreal engine was the level of immediate functionality it provides to young game designers. Almost immediately, a student can get a game up and running simply by dropping any of the predefined actors into a level. Support is provided for common player modes including: 1st and 3rd person, puzzles, wheeled and flying vehicles, and even virtual reality! Creating the environment is as simple as painting what you want on the mesh using tools that are easy to understand. The same is true in terms of materials/skins and using particles, though the student will need to edit simple and easy to understand parameters as well. In short, students can get the basics down in a matter of minutes, not weeks!
Another important thing to note with respect to teaching young developers involves having access to up-to-date resources regarding the tools they are learning. Unreal has this mastered in a neat and easy to use online compendium of resources. One of my biggest complaints with Unity has been how they keep adding more resources with minimal updating for the current engine version they offer. In other words - they leave old tutorials relevant to earlier versions without providing easy to find information on how or even if they work with the latest version. It's a growing list with minimal replacement going back several versions that makes finding relevant resources more difficult, though not impossible. So, I am not a fan of their support site.
As a teacher, another area of importance to me is how well a company supports education. Epic has done an amazing job with this! The sheer magnitude of educational resources provided, access to in-engine assistance, and having expressed a willingness to help educators and students in person really fits the bill on this issue. Representatives from Epic games have been helping local colleges for quite some time now and we were the first group of high school teachers they have worked with but they expressed interest in continuing the conversations with us over time. Personally, I am looking forward to this and commend Epic for putting such effort into educating young game designers!
Also on the educator side, CTE teachers are constantly being told about the importance of making local industry connections for our students. Epic is a worldwide company that is directly relevant to our curriculum and students AND they are located right in our own backyard! On top of that, they are the creators of what is arguably the most popular game in the world at the moment. What more could a game design teacher want in terms of creating connections between content and industry outside of the classroom setting than to make a connection with them?
At the end of the day, I left mentally exhausted with a ton of reflect on. But, one thing is certain: I am completely sold on the idea that making the shift from the Unity game engine to the Unreal game engine is something we need to seriously consider. The cost is right (Unreal, like Unity, is completely free to use and contains no information sniffers, so privacy is ensured), it has a lower barrier to entry for learning, and with the company being local, especially when Unity is not local, makes Epic Games a great hands-on inspiration and resource for both students and educators. But, making this move is not without difficulties.
The Unreal game engine really needs a higher quality computer than what we typically have in our classrooms. My student machines are running with an i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and an older NVIDIA Geforce GTX 680 graphics card. I have tried running Unreal on this setup before (and plan to test it out again soon) and as I recall, the experience was excruciating! The engine lagged, it stopped running at times or had graphics issues and it crashed, quite a bit. Maybe I need some assistance tweaking settings to make it operate more efficiently and plan on reaching out to Epic once I verify our specs, but the laptops we used in the training were i7s with NVIDIA 1070 cards in them. I forgot to ask how much RAM they had. Testing the engine on my personal laptop with an i7, 16GB, and an NVIDIA 1060, it runs smooth. So, we need to think about what we purchase when replacement machines are due for labs teaching game design. On the bright side, the cost of such high quality hardware continues dropping every day and finding a system with the specs to run Unreal for a reasonable cost shouldn't be too hard by the time we are due for replacement machines.
A second concern is the discussion of 2D vs. 3D games. Unreal is designed mainly for 3D game creation and we didn't discuss the possibility of 2D in our training, but there are some options for game modes that imply it can be used for such. This is just something that will need additional investigation. But, I wouldn't let this stop me from using Unreal in my classroom.
In short, nothing is perfect, especially when talking about using technology in a public school system setting. But, I believe the pros of making a switch from Unity to Unreal far outweighs the downsides. So, I'm going to make a concerted effort to ensure we can and do make this change, supporting a local NC business while that same local business supports our education efforts.
The freedom of summer break is coming to a close and it's disappearing faster for some of us than others. I've been in school all week, where I spent loads of time working to get my classroom ready for my students and assessing the last few students who got into DSA over the summer lottery. It has taken me four days, but I am seeing the edge of being prepared for everyone's return. It took days, but both the Adobe CC Suite and the Unity Game Engine have the latest and greatest versions installed on all 25 machines! And, several gigabytes was recovered on each machine by purging old student profiles and files saved to the desktop. Remember when I said you need to save your files to a safe location? If you failed to do so, it's gone now.
So, you might be asking yourself, what else is new? The game design concentration at DSA has made a couple of changes since last year. Here's a short list of things you will see this upcoming school year, by course:
Anyway, as I stated earlier, with just over a week left in summer break, we'll be back to our regular routines again soon. Enjoy what is left of summer and I look forward to seeing everyone in just over a week!
Image Reference: https://makeameme.org/meme/end-of-summer
I am ashamed to say I just noticed that I haven't made a post in MONTHS???!!!!! And, I am not just talking over the summer. I know I had a very busy end of the school year but regardless, this is LOOOOOOOooonnngggg overdue! So, let's start by summarizing this past school year and then I want to discuss what summer looks like for a teacher, at least for me.
This past school year was one of my more difficult years in recent time. I wrestled with a lot! Some of the problems I experienced were with students, some with peers and some outside of the school day. This year, we replaced Scientific Visualization with Digital Design & Animation in a limited pilot for the state. While I think it went well overall: students were engaged, they learned the necessary tools and the curriculum materials were well done, overall, there is definitely room for improvement. Some of the material we included went far too in-depth to the point that there was no way it could be included in a single course with so many other applications to teach the students. But, we learned from that and have done some trimming, plus added a new component to the course which I think will really grab students this coming year (more to come on this in August). But, looking back on the year, it was a good year with a good group of students, many of whom I expect to see in our new course, Digital Design & Animation II, this school year.
Now, onto summertime for me!
Over the past couple of months, while my students have likely been relaxing and enjoying the break, I've been busy pushing my learning of the creative technologies we use in the classroom and coming up with new lessons plans for the coming year. I've mentioned in the past that I have been taking courses through the Adobe Education Exchange to boost my skills with the CC Suite and that process has continued and I have learned so much that will be incorporated into my lessons this coming school year. New courses I have taken include:
I have also been busy learning from other educators as I just returned from the annual NC CTE Summer Conference where I presented sessions on Adobe Spark and assisted the curriculum revision team in updating teachers on the new Digital Design & Animation curriculum that I taught last year in limited pilot as well as a BRIEF overview of Digital Design & Animation II, which has been added to our offerings this coming school year.
But, I am still taking time to relax and recharge. I worked on a lot of lessons right as the school year ended (keeping the momentum going from the past year) but as the summer has drawn on, I have slowed down considerably and I am getting mentally ready for a new year. We all need a break and the body/mind does need rest!
So, as you can see, I have been quite busy. School starts in just a couple of weeks, so I can say in earnest that I am looking forward to seeing my returning students and meeting those who will be new to the game design concentration at DSA.
This is great advice from a type-A personality who is a self-proclaimed workaholic. In short, I find it very difficult to slow down at times and this can be a root cause of burnout. According to Merriam-Webster.com, burnout is defined as "exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration." We all experience burnout at some point. Check out this great article from Psychology Today to learn more about burnout, its causes and symptoms, and ways to avoid it.
Burnout is especially common among teachers. We tend to push ourselves beyond our limits on a regular basis and I am no exception. For me, it is often hard to break things up or move away from the daily routine (bells dictate my robotic daily life) and the curriculum the state provides is the same day-after-day and year-after-year. Although I have almost two hours for planning each day, I still bring a lot of work home to deal with in the evenings and especially over the weekends. And, although you might think otherwise, holiday and summer breaks are no exception for me. I usually keep pushing and taking on new tasks until my body finally says its had enough! After 15 years of this never ending cycle, burnout definitely happens. It is one of many reasons that the average teacher leaves the career in their first five years.
So, how do I keep myself from falling apart in those moments when I'm feeling physically or emotionally drained? I work on keeping my skills fresh and expressing myself creatively. Recently, that has involved doing some side jobs building websites for clients. This gives me a chance to practice layout techniques and be creative in a manner that is somewhat different from my normal routine at school. I also take a number of classes from Adobe that are designed for educators. This helps me boost my skills, do something creative that doesn't directly involve creating lessons, while still providing me with ideas for updating my lessons at some point. For some more ideas on how to overcome burnout, listen to one of my favorite internet influencers, Roberto Blake:
If you found the above video interesting or informative, you should check out his YouTube Channel (Always Be Creating) or follow him on Twitter. And, if you want to see some of the creative avenues I have taken outside of school, check out my Adobe Learning Journals:
I have often told students that I expect them to fail in my class. It is important to understand that when I make this statement, I am not referring to the grades they earn. I am referring to living dangerously, trying new and interesting things, exploring and testing out ideas. Being a digital creative can allow you to take chances that a traditional artist simply cannot afford to try. The software allows you lots of power and flexibility in your creativity and therefore over your final artistic piece. Sure, you can play it safe, do what the rest of the crowd is doing...be a lemming. But what lemming has ever been praised for pushing the creative boundaries? It's those who live a daring life by trying new things who have their names remembered in song. And this is where failing comes into play.
Students often want to play it safe. They want the best grade possible. And, as a society, we have conditioned students to completely follow instructions without trying something new in the process. We reward them for solely meeting the minimal requirements to demonstrate understanding and move them along. Don't get me wrong, providing students with a detailed rubric is essential in making sure they demonstrate mastery of the essential skills we are teaching. But, shouldn't we encourage a love for learning new skills and trying to stand out from the pack? We also need to encourage students to explore those uncomfortable areas of learning where innovation begins. Sure, the first 10 attempts may be a complete and total flop, but the reward of success on that 11th attempt is well worth the initial struggle. History is full of examples of creative or daring individuals trying new things and succeeding after years of trial and error.
Let's examine the invention of the airplane as one example of building upon existing knowledge and going out of one's comfort zone until success is reached. The Wright brothers began getting acquainted with aeronautics in 1899. It was through a series of trial and error that they created what is often referred to as the first practical aircraft in 1905. Had they not tried something new and ignored the doubters, we may have never found ourselves traveling on vacation in modern jets.
So, try something new, push the boundaries, find new ways to use the tools you are working with and create something amazing! Be daring, unleash your creative beast daily and see what happens. Don't worry if you initially fail, you're bound to learn something from that failure and who knows, maybe the next attempt will be your big breakthrough moment! And, even if that big breakthrough never happens, you will inspire yourself to keep creating and building new skills!
Even though the Game Art & Design class focuses mainly of the creation of 2D games and their assets, there are also a number of 3D modeling techniques included in the curriculum. One of them involves rigging a character for animation. You can ask any student who has previously taken this course to list what they consider to be the most frustrating activities they completed in that course and my bet is that 9 out of 10 of them will say rigging a 3D model. And, it is with good reason that I would expect this response.
Rigging involves adding bones to your model, connecting them to one another and then making sure the falloff for what they affect works as expected. It can get highly detailed and is definitely not a task for the casual modeler. Most students enjoy modeling but rigging, that's a whole different ball of wax. However, this year, I think I might have found a solution even though it is far from perfect.
Enter Adobe Fuse and Mixamo. Fuse is Adobe's answer to the 3D modeling. It allows the students to create a bipedal character using various body parts that are already modeled, then using slider controls, one can make adjustments to the character. It also has several outfits one can choose from to skin their model. In short, it makes creating a human character exceptionally easy.
Once created, you can save the model to your Adobe libraries for additional manipulation. From there, you can pull the model into Photoshop and by using the 2D Essentials workspace, you can gain easy access to the materials on it for quick and easy personalization of the model's skins.
Now for the best part: rigging! One can pull the model into Mixamo from their Adobe library or if that was problematic, simply export the model from Photoshop into a standard 3D format such as and OBJ file, then import it into Mixamo and utilize their automatic rigging system! You simply define where specific key points are located on the model (chin, wrists, elbow, knee and groin) and the program does the rest! It even has several predefined animations that you can apply to your newly rigged model, then export it as FBX for use in other applications such as the Unity game engine. It couldn't be simpler. The only downside - it only works with humanoid bipedal models. So, if you want to rig anything else, a monster, vehicles, etc., you still have to rig it from inside a program like Autodesk 3ds Max. But, for getting down the basics, this process should work.
Now for the real test of this change in how I teach rigging and skinning: letting the kids try it out. The modeling part went well and several got into skinning it in Photoshop quickly. Next up when we return to school: getting it rigged. I hope it goes as well as I predict, but more on that later.
This may seem early to you, but we are already starting to plan for next school year even though we aren't halfway through the current year! One of the things I have am responsible for as department chair is verification of courses and descriptions in the registration booklet for the upcoming year. I just completed this task on Friday and thought everyone might like a sneak peek of the upcoming changes to the Game Design concentration.
For starters, the course titled Scientific Visualization will no longer appear as a main course. The title replacing it is Digital Design & Animation. This is the revised course which is taking the place of Sci Vis statewide and focuses more on the creation of digital artwork and other topics that are important to modern artists using technology as their medium. That being said, while it is still awaiting official acceptance from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), all official paperwork (such as report cards) will list students as taking Sci Vis.
We've also added the replacement for Scientific Visualization II. This is a course that wasn't added in the past due to it's heavy focus on science curriculum since we are focusing our attention at DSA on game design. However, it is being replaced at the state level by Digital Design & Animation II which directly follows the content from its namesake's predecessor curriculum. The entire course is designed to focus on increasing one's skills and understanding of 3D modeling. This means the new course fits right in line with our program. Students in DDA-II also have the opportunity to earn certification as an Autodesk 3ds Max Certified User. This is professional recognition of their skills which can be used on both college applications and added to their resume when applying for employment.
Next, students have been asking why there are no honors level courses in game design for quite some time. They know my expectations of them far exceed that of the state curriculum, so I have always thought of this as a valid question. The problem with it revolves around what can and cannot receive honors designation as set by DPI. Mainly, this involves any course currently in field test or pilot status, which has been my more advanced classes for many, many years.
However, this year things are different. I have permission from the CTE instructional management coordinator to add honors designation to the Game Art & Design course in DSA's registration booklet while I complete the necessary paperwork for approval. GAD will continue to be the student's first opportunity to dive into creating their own games with a main focus being on 2D techniques once the basic tools are learned in the previous two classes but by adding honors designation, they will receive a GPA benefit for going above and beyond the required curriculum.
And finally, as a senior, students can take Advanced Game Design as their finale in the concentration. To the best of my knowledge, this course will remain in pilot status next year without any major changes. But, I do know changes are coming down the road and once it is taken out of pilot status, I plan on applying for it to be considered honors level as well. AGAD will continue to focus on 3D game development and associated skills.
While this new alignment is perfect for this year's freshmen, I do realize there are students who have been in the program for a while and may not want to follow this direction. For them, we will continue to offer CTE Advanced Studies (an independent study where students can delve deeper into a topic or tool they learned in previous classes), they can opt to take DDA-II since all students have taken Sci Vis or they can take Digital Media with Mr. Maya in order to complete a concentration in Game Design at DSA.
I believe this is a good change both for our students as well as the program in general. If you are curious about any of these curriculum, you can learn more about them on the About pages above (coming soon) or contact me via email with your questions.
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.