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.
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 have mentioned in the past that I am part of a team involved with revising the Scientific Visualization curriculum. We were originally calling the new curriculum Fundamentals of Design & Animation but have been directed to change it to prevent class order confusion. The new name being recommended to the state for approval is now Digital Design & Animation. I like the new name and the way the curriculum came together as the team worked on focusing the content in a more artistic direction than than the earlier version of the course.
Over the past two days, the revision team met again. And, although we discussed some final adjustments to the previous course, our main focus was discussing revisions to Scientific Visualization II, a course I always swore I never wanted at DSA because the content didn't mesh with the game design focus we offered. The revised version will become (you guessed it!) Digital Design & Animation II, and although I will not go into detail on content specifics, I am thrilled with the change outline the team created during the meetings. So much so that unlike in past years, I definitely want to add this newly revised curriculum to our school's course offerings when it goes into pilot status next school year! That being said, there is a lot of work to do with creating new material for it between now and then.
But, on a more personal level, probably the most important thing that happened over these two days was having the opportunity to collaborate closely with the other members of the team. I always find working with them inspirational. The conversations and resulting collaboration that takes place as a result of these meetings always helps me re-examine where my skills lie and where I need to refocus my attention on improving myself to become a better teacher of our curriculum. It becomes clear that even as classroom teachers, when you work with technologically based curriculum, it is always important to keep up-to-date with the latest changes in terms of software and techniques. Anyone working in a technical field needs to understand that it is not possible to learn all you need to know for your job and then you are done with learning. You have to embrace the fact that you working with technology means becoming a lifelong learner!
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.
It's official! The final nail in the coffin for Scientific Visualization has just been hammered in. I have advocated for changes to Sci Vis for a very long time now and I am pleased to say those screams have not fallen on deaf ears over the past school year. As part of the curriculum development team doing revisions to Sci Vis, I had plenty of say with regard to what was good about it and what needed to be changed. It was clear from the start of the process that all of the teachers on the team were in agreement: Sci Vis needs to go! While I couldn't get every change I thought was important in the new curriculum, I am still very pleased with the product the team created.
You might wonder why I am against Scientific Visualization, so let me clarify my thoughts on the curriculum. And, please don't misunderstand me, Sci Vis has some really good components and I am eternally grateful to the team that originally developed it. Without Sci Vis, there would never have been any game design curriculum or concentration. But, as time has passed, Sci Vis has served its purpose and now it's time to move on. So, as I said before, here are some reasons I pushed for changes over the past several years:
Well, we've reached the end of another school year and what a year it's been! Where do I begin? I've taught six classes a day (instead of the normal five), my students explored the possibilities of virtual reality, my advanced students attended the East Coast Game Conference, both students and myself formed relationships with people in the game industry, I helped create a new curriculum to replace Scientific Visualization for use across the state, I assisted in the selection of finalists for a Department of Education contest, and I presented to other CTE teachers at the annual tech ed conference. And none of this even begins to touch on making sure my students succeeded in my classes...phew!
So, where do I go from here? For starters, I've already started planning for next year. I know it's hard to believe as we have haven't even been out of school for a week, but what can I say? It's what I do! I've already started thinking about how I can improve how I teach my students and update what they need to know to succeed in the game industry, if that is what they pursue after high school. While this is true of all my classes, it is especially important that I start prepping early for my introductory class because it seems the course I worked on this year will indeed be ready for pilot testing next school year and allow us to FINALLY replace Scientific Visualization!
So, I guess I have a pretty busy summer ahead of me. But, for now...it is time for break! I hope all of you have a relaxing and yet, still productive, summer! Watch for an occasional update on here but in general, just have a great summer break and I look forward to seeing everyone in the Fall!
One of the first decisions a game designer needs to make is what game engine they plan to use when developing their idea into something other people can play. If you don't already know, a game engine is the basic software framework used for the creation and development of video games. They typically encompass several different engines packaged together under one larger system, each handling specific tasks including rendering, physics, collisions, animation, artificial intelligence, and so forth. While one can always build their own engine, there are lots of options available for use that can save a team tons of time and effort. In fact, many game engines are free to use until you start shipping games. At that time, you typically have to pay a small fee which differs from engine-to-engine. Here in NC, the state has endorsed the use of two different engines since the early days of the GAD courses: Game Maker and Unity.
Over the past couple of years, I have been a good employee and followed the state's lead in endorsing these engines for use in my classes. However, we ran into a glitch earlier this year. For some unknown reason, despite nothing changing on my computers, Game Maker decided it would not run for the students in GAD. So, knowing that Unity added support for 2D development in recent years, I decided to move them straight into Unity. I thought: how much harder can it be and what are the benefits of doing so now instead of waiting a year?
The benefits were clear: since they need to learn C# to code for 3D, having them start now means they will be even better at it next year. Also, it would give the students experience with a professional tool that is widely used in the industry. CTE directors are always touting the importance of using industry-standard tools, especially software, so this plays up to their desire to do so. And, I found some great introductory tutorials by Brian Moakley on the Ray Wenderlich tutorial website for free to teach the students the basics of C# programming. So, what could go wrong? Plenty!
For starters, learning the basics of coding via the video tutorials should have taken a week...maybe a week and a half for those who really struggled or slacked off. I went through them and there was nothing truly difficult or too in-depth. It took considerably longer. I helped the students through the process as needed, but the idea that attention to detail while coding, especially things like being consistent in spelling, capitalization and punctuation, simply didn't sink in for many of them. There is a reason coding is compared to learning a foreign language. As is the case with learning any written/spoken language, programming languages have their own sense of grammar that needs to be closely adhered to or one's code simply won't work correctly. This makes programming less forgiving than spoken languages.
Next, some of the students really struggled with the concept of simple programming logic: conditionals, loops, variables, etc. These logical, left-brained concepts made my creative right-brained students' heads spin. But, eventually they all finished the tutorials and could start working in Unity 2D. This opened up an entirely new set of problems as the students continued to struggle with the coding.
Game Maker was awesome because it allowed students to learn coding logic and design with a bit of a cushion that Unity does not provide by being graphically oriented instead of "grammatically" focused. Students in GAD, being more creative than analytical, tended to pick up the basics well this way and appreciated the visual aspects of a simple interface. I saw a lot of the same problems with coding from my students in AGAD this year as well. Which makes me wonder: is Unity the best choice for high school students when it comes to selecting game engines?
This weekend, I decided to examine a third option: Unreal Editor 4 by Epic Games, located right here in Cary, NC! UE4 is another game engine that is used all across the game industry. While I am only just beginning to examine UE4, I have to say that I truly like what I see. The interface looks and feels a lot like Unity. Sure, there are different names for each panel and different options on menus, but moving around and the tools are not completely unfamiliar to me. Where I do notice a huge difference that gives UE4 an advantage is the coding is handled.
While one can (and probably will eventually need to) get into learning C++ coding to create desired games, a lot of the logic can be setup using what they call blueprints. So, what are blueprints and why do they matter? At its most simple explanation blueprints are objects created using a form of visual scripting. Much like Game Maker, this means it takes away a lot of the confusion of coding logic for individuals who are more artistic in nature. For more on Blueprint and its related objects, check out this UE4 video on the subject!
Where does this leave myself and my students? Personally, I have a lot more to learn about the UE4 and it seems I will have a very busy summer doing so. While I am under the belief that it will not run on the school computers due to lack of necessary hardware resources, I'm going to try it anyway! I haven't given it a shot yet and want to make sure my earlier beliefs are true before making huge changes to the program. But, I have quickly taken a liking to UE4, preferring the interface and tools over Unity, and believe my students will as well. While it is too late in the year to make such a switch now, it makes me wonder about doing so next school year. And, like Unity, UE4 offers options for both 2D and 3D development, though most people use it for 3D alone.
Winter break has come and gone and just like my students in the new year...I'm back! Currently, I sit here looking out the window at blue skies and cold temperatures due to our first winter weather event of the season. I suspect it will lead to an extended weekend, but for that we will have to wait and see what happens. Regardless, we have recently experienced a lot of free time out of school which has allowed me to reflect on how I will alter the direction my students will be taking the remainder of the school year in order to keep my instruction relevant and up-to-date with industry skills and knowledge.
Over the years as a game design teacher, I have had the good fortune to be involved in numerous conversations and interactions with professional game designers. This has allowed me to consider the relevance in the content I teach, particularly in terms of the groundwork being laid in Scientific Visualization. As a result, I often change the lessons and instructions used in connection with this curriculum. This is one of the main reasons for my willingness to volunteer with this particular curriculum's pending revision. And, while I am thrilled that this course was able to open the door for classes like Game Art & Design and Advanced Game Design, a lot of the information included in Sci Vis is simply irrelevant to careers in the game industry.
Besides the name of the course, one of my concerns has always been the amount of science my artistic students receive in Sci Vis, which takes up the better part of the first semester. I have heard other teachers openly state that they completely skip this material. But I find that behavior irresponsible of anyone who claims to be an educator. There is some useful knowledge and skills in this part of the material and students need to understand it for their exams at the end of the year. This material also speaks to CTE's inclusion in STEM. However, such material often demotivates my artistic students from wanting to continue with me into game design as they fear such material will be droped into future courses as well. They take my classes because they want art, not science! But, we are past all that now and can fully focus on digital artistic skills for the remainder of the year. The areas of focus is the use of industry standard 2D and 3D digital tools, such as Photoshop, Illustrator and 3ds Max.
One of the first things I learned about the artistic portion of Sci Vis is the minor amount of focus it places on 2D digital tools. Photoshop and Illustrator are both very powerful tools and used widely throughout digital studios by professionals. They are the industry standards for all 2D artwork and there is a lot of it in game design. But, when I originally examined the curriculum, I came to realize several serious problems relating to the expected instruction of these tools when compared with how they are used in the game industry.
For starters, more attention is given to vector than to raster graphics. While this may seem logical due to constraints imposed on rescaling raster graphics along with differences in file size, the game industry rarely uses vector images outside of creating high quality components that are brought into raster images. Such items include graphics company/game logos, game icons, menu items, etc. In other words: most games tend to entirely use raster graphics and vector graphics only supplement the quality of the artwork.
The next problem I noticed is that the majority of the raster tools discussed in the curriculum focus more on skills used by photographers than those used by digital artists. Yes, it is important to know how to mask, crop, use filters and so forth, but there is little-to-no instruction on the use of drawing/painting tools in Photoshop. And that is where and how most 2D artwork is done by game production teams!
So, what am I changing this year? I am dropping much of the focus on vector graphics. Don't get me wrong, students will still be introduced to Illustrator and how they can use it create clean, scalable graphics. But our focus throughout the year has been and will continue to be on raster graphics and the use of Photoshop techniques to create digital artwork and paintings. That is, at least until we get to 3D modeling.
Another important change involves the use of drawing tablets. In the past, select students have used a drawing tablet in my classroom but I have never instructed them in doing so or how to customize the Photoshop interface for painting, instead of using the default workspace and settings which are more geared towards graphic design and photography. This year, that all changes.
A lot of the information that I am using with my students comes from a very useful and informative website: Ctrl+Paint. The site author, Matt Kohr, is a video game concept artist who is highly skilled in the use of Photoshop. His website provides an excellent resource for beginning digital artists by covering both traditional and digital drawing techniques. And, he explains everything in detailed and easy to understand video tutorial format...for FREE! In terms of painting with Photoshop, this is the absolute best resource I have ever found online.
So far, I have used Kohr's tutorials to help teach my students about the different principles of design through the use of orcs. I was also able to use the same techniques to teach them a lot of Photoshop skills and tools in a short period of time. Being a first-go at this method of teaching the material, I found out fast that I tried to cram too much instruction and skill practice into too little time. While I think this was a good exercise, I need to make several changes to it for future use. Now, we are gearing up to focus on digital painting techniques and I need to account for this being a new skillset for both my students and myself.
One concern I have involves some technological problems I have encountered with using the website's tutorials. I often like to provide students with direct access to video tutorials for use as a resource in my classroom. It helps them when they get stuck and I am busy assisting other students with problems they are encountering. Having access to such resources allows students to solve their own problems without relying on others, such as the teacher. However, we have a pesky Internet filter installed that blocks all kinds of useful tools erroneously and these videos are no exception. There are two commonly used websites for hosting video content: YouTube and Vimeo. Kohr hosts his videos on the latter. The problem comes in with the ability of the school system's IT department to control access to individual videos using the filter. They can control direct access to YouTube videos but not Vimeo and refuse to unblock the entire site due to some materials posted there not being school appropriate. I truly get it, but it is also very frustrating that students are limited in their lack of ability access a great resource because IT cannot effectively use the filter to block inappropriate material posted on the site..
The other problem that I have run into involves our drawing tablets. My classroom is outfited with several Genius MousePen tablets that were generously donated by a former student's dad. They are great for drawing solid lines but we have always had a difficult time with using pressure sensitivity to paint in a more natural manner. Even after updating the drivers and replacing pen batteries, some will not apply pressure sensitivity while a few simply refuse to work altogether or on specific computers. One solution I found involves moving the cable from one USB port to another in the computer or rebooting the computer. Generally, this helps when a tablet stops working. But, it is still hard to paint effectively without pressure sensitivity. We can simulate this by changing the flow and/or opacity settings on the brush tool, but it is not the same either in terms of natural painting techniques or overall quality. Perhaps it is time to request new tablets and move to a more industry standard item like a Wacom?
I hope it is clear from the discussion above that I put a lot of thought into keeping my students up-to-date both in terms of skills and content. I know I will be doing a lot of reflection on the importance and techniques used to teach digital painting skills to my students. So, look for more on this topic in the coming weeks!
As a teacher, it is often easy to get into a groove and stay there. After all, the state provides us with the content we need to teach. And, even though we often create new lessons based on updating the focus of our content, it can become very easy to just keep repeating ourselves. While this may work well for some curriculum...for instance, how often do writing strategies REALLY change in an English class...it doesn't work for all. Nowhere is this more true than teaching technology skills and knowledge.
This past week, I had the opportunity to take part in the first of two curriculum revision teams that I volunteered to join. Both Scientific Visualization and Advanced Game Design are up for changes. Ever since I started teaching the game design classes, I have wondered why the first course in the series is Scientific Visualization. I mean come on: do game designers REALLY care about things like X-ray crystallography or gel electrophoresis? The resounding answer is: NO! So, why is this course where it all begins?
Over the years, I have come to understand a little more about why this is the case. Despite several units of information that barely (if at all) relates to anything dealing with digital artistic production, this course provides students with several skills that cross industries. Specifically, an understanding of the design principles and techniques along with hands-on skills in creating/manipulating 2D and 3D graphics/animation. It should also be noted that the idea of a curriculum focusing on the idea of game creation was not something that officials who make decisions about adding new courses to the state offerings were open to putting into high schools at the time the course was conceived. So, we should all step back for a second and be grateful for this creative way of opening the door to where we are today.
Last Thursday, I had no idea what kind of reception from the selected team members I would be walking into with respect to their assumptions about the current curriculum. Were they big fans of Sci Vis as it stands and wanting to make minor updates to content or were they looking for new directions too? I simply didn't know. But, I clearly had my own thoughts on what we should do: scrap much of the content, keep the good parts dealing with design techniques and change the course title.
Although there was some intial pushback from our DPI representative, it quickly became clear that the team was on the same page as me. By the end of the first day of empassioned debate, we had arrived at a new title for the course which would effectively drive the resulting content more towards digital production than science. After two days, we had the core of a new blueprint established and roles for content creation.
This is not the first time I have assisted with altering a curriculum, though it is the most thorough. And, I believe this is a process that all teachers should, if provided the opportunity, take advantage of assisting with. For one thing, it helps teachers take ownership of the content their students are learning. I cannot count the number of times I have heard a teacher complain about something they are required to teach but when revision time comes around, they don't want to be the ones who do it. I liken this to people who refuse to vote and then complain about the person who is elected. Neither make an effort to change the results, so neither have a right to complain.
Another benefit of participating in revision teams relates to how educators are assessed as professionals. Standard 1 of the NC Teacher Evaluation Process states that teachers should demonstrate leadership in their classroom, the school and the profession, advocate for students and hold high ethical standards. While it is easy to demonstrate leadership in the classroom and school, doing so in the profession requires a bit more effort. In order to receive a distinguished (the highest) rating possible for leadership in the profession, a teacher needs to seek opportunities to lead professional growth activities and decision-making processes. And, with regard to receiving a distinguished rating for advocating for students, the teacher needs to actively participate in, promote and provide strong evidence for the implementation of initiatives to improve education. By assisting with revisions or the creation of entirely new curriculum, it is obvious to the community and one's supervisors that these standards are being met at the highest level.
So, in summary, while I am not at liberty to discuss the upcoming changes at the moment, I can say that I believe both students and fellow educators will be very pleased with the direction th Sci Vis curriculum is headed. More to come on content down the road...
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.