Last week, I had the privilege of presenting at the annual CTE Summer Conference. I will admit that in the past, I have not held this conference in high regard. I had been told many years ago by a mentor teacher that it was a complete waste of time with very few, if any, useful sessions. And, my first experience of attending the conference definitely verified this statement. So when I was asked back in the Spring to present on the virtual reality work we did this past year at DSA, my only thoughts were:at least I will earn CEUs towards my next license cycle and this will be another professional presentation to add to my resume. Boy, was that line of thinking wrong!
I spent the first day of the conference locked in making presentations. I gave two talks in the morning on using VR in the classroom followed by assisting another member of the Scientific Visualization revision team with two more talks in the afternoon discussing the changes the curriculum is taking as we prepare to go into pilot status. But, I spent the second day attending sessions that caught my attention or I thought may be of use to me in the coming year.
Before I talk about the sessions I attended, let me state the four presentations I took part in were very well received. Being a Technology Education teacher, I was surprised when I learned one of my talks on VR had erroneously been placed in the Marketing program. But, the audience was standing room only! So, I adjusted on-the-fly to cater the presentation to their knowledge as much as I could while still serving the Technology Education teachers in the room. And, the two talks on the revision brought about many comments from the audience thanking us for making the changes we discussed. All in attendance agreed that the alterations were very much needed and right in line with what the students would need to know to succeed down the road. So that tells me we did something right!
On the second day, I attended three talks. The first discussed teaching coding to high school students. And, while it focused on things I previously considered to be below my high school students' level, like the Hour of Code, teaching Scratch, Snap and using Khan Academy, it did give me some ideas for getting my students started with coding logic prior to diving into C# with the Unity game engine. After last year's experience in Game Art & Design, I am thinking smaller baby steps are definitely in order this year as I learned what I thought would be an easy resource for learning coding was a little more than some students could handle.
The second talk I attended had nothing to do with my program area but I thought it would be interesting: Modernization of the Electric Grid. And, I was right! While it focused on engineering topics and some of it went over my head, I still found the conversation to be fascinating. And, this talk provided me with an idea for a new activity this year in terms of game creation. The content I learned definitely lends itself to students creating a video game about the grid and how it is being updated with smart technologies.
The third talk I attended discussed teaching skills to students using Adobe Illustrator. While I have taught Illustrator for a number of years now, I am in no way an expert. I tend to prefer using Adobe Photoshop whenever possible as nearly every graphic in the game industry is a bitmap, not a vector. But, I still need to make sure my students understand the basics of vector graphics and it is always nice to learn a new tool inside of an already familiar application. And, I walked out of this talk with a new understanding of some tools that I have never used in class. So, this was another successful session for me.
So, did my attitude about the conference change? Not entirely, but I do see attending in a more positive light at this point and will likely attend again in coming years. There were still a lot of sessions that I wouldn't find useful but there are a lot of different program areas in CTE and they all need to be served during the conference. The quality of the talks increased as did the types of topics presented. So, I was very pleased overall with the conference.
This past week, I brought 23 students (and a fellow educator) to the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC). Doing so has become an annual event for my most advanced and/or most promising game design students. I generally take students who are currently in CTE Advanced Studies and Advanced Game Design as well as a handful of students in my Game Art & Design classes. Attending the conference gives students a chance to learn about topics that are relevant to the game industry from professionals as well asspeak with representatives from colleges/universities that offer degree programs in game design. Typically, ECGC is a major highlight of being part of the Game Design concentration at DSA for many of my students.
In the past, I have spoken about the importance of making real-world industry connections for students, so I will not bore my audience with a repeat of that information. If you want to learn more about my thoughts on this topic, check out these filtered posts. Instead, I want to tell you a little bit about the sessions that I specifically attended this year. Due to transportation conflicts, we could only stay at the conference a limited amount of time each day this year. While this meant missing several presentations, it did allows us to hear up to three talks per day and spend some time checking out booths manned by schools and companies. The talks that I attended included:
I want to focus on one of the talks I enjoyed enjoyed most this year which fell in the Art Track: Snyder's talk on digital painting. During his talk, Snyder explained how it is extremely important to examine different artistic styles, and not just those of a digital variety. He stressed how examining the way artists use a number of techniques like oils and opacity with paint on canvas can improve one's digital skills. Snyder pointed out that you can look at the work of video game artists and trace back their influences in a clear and concise manner all the way back to the classic artists who inspired those artists they were inspired by while learning their craft. But, he didn't just state the importance of looking at the classics, he also encouraged examining more modern art and how it pushes current conventions to its limits. He noted that by taking the time to become more knowledgeable of style, one also learns to pay closer attention to detail. This, in turn, helps them become better digital artists. A second thing he stressed was the importance of not overusing the undo option. To quote Bob Ross, "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents." Sometimes, it is the mistakes that help to make an artistic piece really shine or focus the viewer's attention to the part that really matters.
After making sure everyone understood why examining traditional art was important, he discussed the artistic tools he specifically uses when creating a digital work. His main tool set includes: Photoshop using a simple round brush with sensitivity turned on and an inexpensive Wacom Bamboo tablet! He then demonstrated how he uses classic paintings to improve his skills. He began by opening an image of as painting by Sargent in Photoshop where he noted the manner in which Sargent used oils to build up paint, forming his self portrait. He then began blocking out a copy of it using the digital tools in a space next to the painting. It was nowhere near polished but in less than five minutes, you could clearly see the features coming through. Snyder's talk will become the inspiration for a new assignment on digital painting techniques to use in class next year. But, I will have to flush that out more over the coming summer.
Over the past few weeks, dare I say two months, I have struggled with being a teacher. Between Winter and Spring Breaks is always a difficult time for many teachers and I am no exception. If you look at my blog regularly, you may have noticed the drop-off in posts. This is a large part of the reason for this lack of writing. But, the end is near and I am rejuvenated after last week's Spring Break! I am hoping the same goes for both my fellow educators and my students alike! So, it is time to return to regular writing habits.
Over the next two days, I will spend time with my advanced students (and a handful from GAD) at the East Coast Game Conference. While we cannot stay for the whole day because of bus issues, the students will get to hear six talks by professional game designers as well as meander around the expo hall to see displays and speak with both professionals in the industry and college/university representatives about their programs. Each student (and myself, of course) will be doing a blog post as a follow-up assignment to attending the conference. So, early next week, take a peek at the student blogs for the Advanced Game Design and Advanced Studies students if you are curious to see what they took away from this always important experience! And, come back here to see what I found interesting about this annual experience.
This past week, I attended the NCTEDE Annual Conference in Winston-Salem, NC. While there, I had the opportunity to both learn from other Technical Education teachers as well as present the work of my CTE Advanced Studies students. I am going to review some of what I experienced while there.
I will begin with my presentation, since it was in the first time-slot of the day and probably what most of my readers are most interested in anyway. Although I could have taken on many different directions with my presentation (talk about VR in the classroom, discuss group projects, discuss many of the problems and solutions we have come up with, etc.), I chose to discuss how a project like ours can be a good replacement for the traditional internship. How, might you ask, is this possible? Well...for years, our school has not had a Career Development Coordinator (CDC) assigned to it. This individual is the go-between for both CTE teachers and their central office as well as those teachers and the community, including finding internships. Because we have lacked this role at our school, we have had a difficult time finding internship for our seniors. This problem is escalated when you consider that most companies in the game industry have strict confidentiality concerns with bringing interns from what is often their target market through their doors. This is where the Prison Flip Project takes over for my seniors. Throughout this project, the students are working closely with two distinct groups of professionals, which allows me to consider this project more like an internship that an Advanced Studies class.
The first group is Lucid Dream VR. Lucid Dream has been our mentors throughout the process. They have assisted us as consultants and guides throughout the process, much like an internship's supervisor would do for the students. When the students have experienced problems, the members of Lucid Dream have provided instruction and assistance. They have been the individuals who have truly made our ability to do anything with virtual reality possible!
The second group is Growing Change. Growing Change has been a real-world client for the students' project. They are the reason that we are creating the VR walkthrough and they will benefit from the class' work the most. So, without them, we wouldn't have the opportunity to have our "simulated internships" environment either. So, by thinking outside the box of what is normally considered to be an internship, I am providing my advanced students with the opportunity to get all the benefits of an internship without leaving the classroom setting.
Another item from the conference that i want to touch on involves teaching 3D modeling techniques. Working with 3D has never been one of my stronger skills but after lots of practice and research, I found ways that worked for me without using (many) of the state's outdated video tutorials. But, at the conference, I attended a session on teaching students to complete the 3D modeling unit in Scientific Visualization. This talk sparked an idea that I used just this morning with my students. Normally, I lecture using the state's PowerPoint, then I might walk them through the interface and let them attack a number of video tutorials. No more!
While I am giving the class the lecture material for use when studying for quizzes and tests, I am not lecturing it. They are intelligent and can read as well as I can read it to them with minimal added commentary, as that is all that is really needed. Instead, we dove straight into 3ds Max. I started by showing them a few of the items in the interface that they will need to get familiar with and where things are located. During the training, the speaker demonstrated making a dog. I decided to change things up a little by telling the kids: Today, you are making an elephant! We didn't cover every tool or technique they need, but it did give them a glimpse into how one can quickly and easily model change a simple primitive, like a cube, into a complex object. Over time, the modeling and relating techniques will get more involved but for now, this simply set of instructions appear to have really motivated the students about 3D modeling!
As a Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher, I understand how powerful it can be to expose our students to industry experiences. And, over the years, I have done so at every possible opportunity. This is one of the reasons I take my advanced students to the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC) every Spring. At the conference, they get to hear from and interact with industry leaders in the game industry. But, I also want my younger students to have this kind of exposure as well, even though I know they are not ready for the freedom and responsibility that I provide to students attending such a large scale event.
Last year, I took my students in Game Art & Design to the US2020 RTP STEM Expo, which focused on the game industry. This event had the feel of ECGC on a much smaller scale. It gave students access to both industry professionals and colleges/universities that offer degrees in game design, allowing them to hear about the various topics that matter to the industry while exploring industry careers and the higher education needed to attain them. The size of the expo made it more suitable for my younger students and easier to supervise them. I will be taking this year's GAD students back for their second expo in a few weeks which is focusing on the use of art in STEM careers. While it's a more general topic than the previous expo, it still equally relates to our game design concentration.
Another way I can expose students to industry professionals involves inviting guest speakers to visit my classes. Although this does not always work out as I often have two classes of the same curriculum separated by one or more periods each day, I haven't had any issues so far this year. My schedule is really convenient for guest speakers staying for multiple classes for the first time since I started teaching. Over the past two weeks, students in Sci Vis have been introduced to two industry professionals who spoke about using visualization techniques in their individual careers.
The first to visit my class was assistant director Richard White. He has worked on films such as Terminator: Genysis, 300: Rise of an Empire and the upcoming Max Steel as well as several TV shows. He explained to the students how digital effects are an integral part of the film industry, even at those moments when you think they are using live special effects such as bullet shots. He also explained how they use digital mock-ups of scenes for previsualizations in order to make the live shoot go much smoother and to make directorial edits before involving the entire film crew and actors.
They were also visited by Colin Dwan from Prologue Games, located right here in Durham. He discussed what skills are used in the creation of his narrative style games, which are currently being converted to VR. He provided real-world advice that mimics the information I give my students about employment in the game industry from a position of personal experience. This is something I am unable to do for them and it is always powerful for them to hear about how difficult it is to work in the game industry as well as the skill set they need to develop and how it connects with what I teach them over their four years in my classes. He also explained the tools that are used in the creation of his games, most of which are learned by students in the GAD concentration throughout their time in high school.
However, hearing from industry professionals is not solely important for my younger students. My CTE Advanced Studies students are working closely with the team from Lucid Dream VR in creating their virtual reality experience for Growing Change. In doing so, they get to learn how the same tools that create video games can be used outside of the game industry. They also learn what it is like to have real-world clients, how to work as a small design team, and how to overcome project difficulties as they arise.
Down the road, I have plans to bring several other professionals into my classroom. My daughter, Melanie Fisher-Wellman, who not only graduated from DSA herself but is the creative director for Boostopia B2C can speak as a graphic designer on the importance of understanding how to use the design principles as well as elements of design. Pierce Freelon of Blackspace Durham, a hub for Afrofuturist thought, can discuss his creative ventures in support of African-American youth. In the past, I have brought in Dr. Chris Hazard of Hazardous Software who works in the field of game theory both in terms of his own game company and as a contractor for the federal government. And, having such a huge connection to the game industry in our area, I am currently attempting to make some connections at Epic Games as well.
Each connection with industry professionals that I can provide gives my students a unique perspective on the creative industries and how the digital art are used outside of a school setting. While I hope these connections inspire my students to be even more interested in my curriculum and aware of how the skills they learn in GAD relate to more than just video games, hearing from industry professionals can also provide direction to students who might not be sure about what they want to do some day after high school.
One of the most important things that professionals always need to do is keep abreast of current tools and trends in the industry where they are employed. One of the most common ways to do this is by attending professional conferences. This is equally true of the game industry as it is with any other professional field. I introduce my students to this fact by taking them to the East Coast Game Conference. This annual event takes place in Raleigh during the springtime and boasts the largest gathering of professional game designers on the east coast. It is often an eye-opening experience for my students when they interact with the creators of some of the biggest titles being produced both currently and in past years.
However, this post is not about ECGC. This past week, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the NC Technology Engineering and Design Educators Association (NCTEDEA) Spring Conference held in Kill Devil Hills, NC. While there, myself and three other Kenan Fellows shared information on our experience in the program along with our resulting lesson plans. Although the conference was very small, there was a lot of interest in what we had to say. Attendees got to see how four individuals from different backgrounds (an engineering teacher, a business and marketing teacher, an honors chemistry teacher, and myself - a game art & design teacher) were put together to build a wearable device and how we brought this shared experience back to our classrooms in unique and differing ways. While this was useful for the other teachers in attendance and presenting to one's peers is good for all to experience as a professional, I really wanted to bring something useful back for myself and my students.
Not only does attending conferences allow one to gain valuable information by attending formal presentations, but it allows you to network and converse/collaborate informally with one's peers, many of whom you may or may not see in other environments. This is where the real power of conferences comes into play in my mind. In attending, I managed to catch up with a former fellow game art & design teacher, Jonathan Peedin, who has since left the world of education and returned to his former career of designing video games, this time for Boss Key Productions as a senior UI/UX designer. However, he has kept one foot in the world of teaching as he is working on re-vamping the GAD curriculum and requirements to more closely align with the game industry. We had a number of conversations about where these changes may lead and I came back from the conference refreshed and excited about the updates to come. During the formal sessions, Jonathan gave a talk on free design tools and tablet use in the classroom, where he introduced two applications that teachers and students can use. And, I want to encourage my students to look into these tools as they can gain a lot out of both. Plus, being free, the price is perfect.
The first tool Jonathan shared with attendees is Sculptris by Pixelogic. Sculptris is a free 3D modeling application made by the same company that sells ZBrush, the industry standard 3D modeling software. Both products work like modeling in clay, allowing the artist to pull, pinch, push and prod their character or object into shape. Currently, the curriculum calls for teaching 3D modeling using 3ds Max, which has its roots in the world of computer aided drafting. Just considering this information and how we would use 3D models in video games, it is clear that using an artistic approach makes more sense than the technical design approach. We are often working with organic shapes and technical drawing is not really designed for such work. This doesn't mean that one should ignore technical modeling programs such as 3ds Max or Maya. While you can easily model your objects in Sculptris, you cannot rig or animate them and these are important tasks in creating video games. Applying texturing is also handled better outside of Sculptris. Based on all of this knowledge, I was very pleased to learn this powerful and lightweight application is being added to the list of required software for the game design classes.
The second tool I learned about was Krita, which is a free paint program. While Photoshop continues to dominate as the industry standard piece of software for 2D digital artwork, some companies are also looking at what is available to use for free these days. And, I often have students ask me what they can get for cheap, or better yet free, to learn how to create artwork on the computer. And, it may come as no surprise that GIMP is often the answer I provide. Like Krita, GIMP is free. However, it has a steep learning curve and I have often hear students (and myself) complain about getting very frustrated with it. GIMP is not intuitive and if you are used to working in Photoshop, rather hard to understand. At least it is for me. So, when Jonathan told me his coworkers at Boss Key pointed him towards using Krita, it made me even more curious about using it. So, as soon as I returned from the conference, I downloaded the software and started exploring its capabilities. After just a few minutes, I found it to be very intuitive and easy to use, which gave it a major boost over GIMP. And to my amazement, in terms of drawing on the computer, I preferred it over Photoshop! So, while I currently have minimal experience with this software, it has become my new go-to response when students want/need access to a paint program.
The final piece of knowledge that Jonathan touched on was the use of graphics tablets for doing one's artwork on the computer. I have tablets in my classroom but tend not to use them too often. I know...shame on me! But, with everything else I have to do and learn for my classes, I have simply put learning the graphics tablet on the back-burner to more pressing concerns that are constantly presenting themselves to me. But, I do see the value in using them and have always allowed students to do so at their request. I found Jonathan's response to a comment by another teacher useful in re-framing my mind on using them. This teacher asked if it is difficult to get used to drawing on the tablet and looking at the screen as opposed to a pen and paper on a desk. His response, and I paraphrase: you already do this with a mouse...it's just a matter of training yourself to do it with a different tool. So, when I installed Krita, I also grabbed one of the tablets. My first problem was that I could not get different shades like I can with a pencil despite the maker's claim of 1024 different levels of pressure being available. This bothered me. However, after updating the driver, it worked like a champ. All that is left for me to do is learn how to program the hot spot locations on the tablet and I am really ready to use it even more productively. However, even without them, I have started working on my skills and am quickly falling in love with using a graphics tablet. It's really not very difficult to become accustomed to, as Jonathan mentioned, and simply takes a little practice. I believe this will be the focus of my personal learning this coming summer.
So, while attending the conference, I was out of my classroom and at the beach for two days. The question I ask myself is does this benefit my students? I think it does based on everything I discussed above. I learned some new tools and gained a little insight into the direction the game design classes will be taking in the future. I hope you agree with my assessment and if you do not currently attend whatever professional conferences your industry offers, you change your perspective on them and start doing so.
One of the highlights of being in the Game Art & Design concentration at Durham School of the Arts is attending the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC). This event, which is held annually in Raleigh, boasts the largest gathering of professional game designers on the east coast. The focus of this year's conference was virtual reality (VR). Students had an opportunity to listen to talks such as:
While all of us could attend talks in any of the sessions tracks including: narrative, art, design, audio, programming, serious games, Indie games, Unreal engine, and portfolio critiques, I spend most of my time listening to the speakers in the design track. Some of the topics that caught my attention were:
Baldwin's talk focused on making sure that team leads consider and touch on each of the following areas when doing critiques: sensitivity, clarity, inspiration, generosity, timeliness, honesty, openness, curiosity, time, follow-through, role identification and riffing. After the talk, I asked the students who attended this session with me how well I meet those requirements as defined in the session. Their response: around 70%. While this is pretty good as some of the items discussed mainly pertain to team leads at game companies, I know there are areas that I need to work on improving. With all that is expected of teachers, I know that I could put more time into critiques, both verbally and in print.
One way I would like to do improve my critiques is to plan on adding a day completely dedicated to critique every couple of weeks starting next school year. This will allow students to see and discuss each other's work as well as pick up tips from me on how to improve their skills. Also, such a day will give them a nice breather between assignments, allowing them to critically think about the work they are doing rather than just plowing through the assigned work. Learning critiquing skills is also an important life skill for students, so I may even have them take the lead on some of those days as well. I may try these techniques a couple of times this year as well, but as the we are coming up to exams and the year is ending before much longer, it really doesn't make sense to make any drastic changes to how we have been doing things all year.
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.