This week marks approximately one month since schools shutdown due to covid-19. Because of this, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at how things are going for me and my students in my classes so far. Bear in mind, these are personal observations (for the most part) and may not be relevant to everyone teaching and learning through this crisis. And, while I know there are a lot of forces at work in all of our lives such as economic hardship and personal mental struggles resulting from stay-at-home orders across the nation, I will only address a handful of topics related directly to what I see as an educator. Unfortunately, I cannot solve every problem we experience.
I guess you can say that our students are lucky. Our school was already in the process of making certain that every high school student either already had or would be provided with some form of technology allowing them to access the internet prior to the covid outbreak. Although we were not quite finished ensuring this when the school system decided to shutdown, the goal was realized a very short time afterwards. Now, school administration and parents in our PTSA are working on the same assurance for our middle school students. This is awesome...though it holds some limitations for classes such as mine as the provided devices are all Chromebook based and cannot run the necessary software for the curriculum. So, I needed to find alternative software that can be used on a variety of device types and come as close as possible to the required software I teach to ensure continued learning of major concepts, if not the required tools. And, after considerable effort, I managed to succeed in my search for most of the software needed (graphics, video editing, animation and 3D modeling).
So, curriculum specifics aside, what else is new? Well, teachers and students have learned to interact in new ways using online tools. I have never been happier to have already prepared my students for curriculum distribution using a learning management system (LMS). Many teachers had to get up to speed with creating an online classroom as quickly as possible and I was already finished with overcoming this hurdle thanks to using an LMS for well over a decade. But, that is really where the advantages I hold as a tech ed teacher end.
On the personal note, I find myself working more frequently and harder than ever before to make sure my students succeed. I am busy converting lessons to focus more on concepts than software and find it hard to step away from work now that there is a very blurred line between my work-home lives. While I only need to work eight hours a day, I find myself working 10-14 hours. But, that work is typically far less stressful most days as I can select a single task to focus on, actually finishing it in one sitting rather than completing them in bits and pieces throughout a the week. I no longer live by an alarm clock despite typically start my workday at 6:00 am or earlier, walking from the bedroom to my office. I can delay the beginning of work, for the most part, if needed and continue later in the evening to accomplish the necessary tasks. And, most importantly, I can walk away to take a break any time I find it is needed without any consequences for doing so. I know if I take a needed hour-long walk or a mental distraction spending a TV show in the middle of the work day, I will make up the time that appears to be lost productivity later on in the same day, regardless of time, since there is no real punch clock or supervisor standing over me to keep track of clock-time physically spent with students. I am actually far more productive given the flexibility to accomplish the tasks I need to do when I am most focused on completing them.
Looking at general educational requirements, teachers are incorporating the use of video conferencing in place of face-to-face instruction using tools like Zoom or Google Hangout or Hangout Meets. As a result, I have flipped my classroom instruction. I typically use my hour-long weekly meeting with each of my four preps to provide a short overview of where they should be and where we are headed, update them on changes to needed school related information, and answer questions they may have regarding the activities I provide them. Most of the material that I would normally share as lecture in the past is now placed completely inside the individual pages and activities in my LMS as video content and/or reading materials. This allows me to focus on student needs as opposed to repetitive instructions, basic vocabulary and hands-on demonstrations during the short time I have with them in a face-to-face environment. I now see how I can change these regular classroom activities often resulted in an actual drop in student engagement during classroom instruction. For many students, lecture means tune-out and this flip encourages tuning-in. Flipping instruction is definitely one technique that will be retained once we return to the traditional classroom.
However, it seems that not every student flourishes under this model. There is a HUGE problem that has become abundantly clear as we move forward: apathy. Although I have reached out to the families of those students who aren't engaging in anything within my classes, regardless of whether it is participating in video conferences or submitting completed assignments, there seems to be a sense of being overwhelmed on the part of some students and/or their families. While I cannot say for certain the cause of this behavior in students (it could be caused by economic hardships, illness falling upon families, difficulty in sharing technology among family members, or personal difficulty in coping with the isolation resulting from stay-at-home orders in most states), it is a major problem that must be dealt with and overcome for students to be successful. Students need a supportive and encouraging home environment to help them navigate the now required changes to their normal daily routine. And sadly, it appears many lack this support structure, so they fall between the cracks and get left behind despite our best attempts for this to not happen.
On the other side of the equation are students who are heavily engaged/involved and who have that necessary support structure. These students are flourishing through the challenges and making every effort possible to be successful. They seem to be learning the importance of self-reliance and personal motivation, developing better communication skills, and finding connections between the skills taught in school and the world outside the educational bubble that they never saw before. It is a truly amazing thing to see these students develop as we continue doing our best to help all of our kids become successful both in and out of their classwork.
On Friday, I started a new tradition with my students: Friday Fun Polls. I decided that a simple poll to see where students stand on any number of topics could be an informative and a fun distraction, if only for a brief moment. And, I let them know that generally, these polls won't have anything to do with curriculum. To kick off this new weekly activity, I asked the students to respond to the following question:
Are you ready to come back to the classroom yet?
Out of my 110 students, I received a response from 42. And, while that is only 38% of my students, I found the results extremely interesting.
Think about this - 83% of students who are engaged miss school after only one month. Granted, that is most likely due to the social aspects school provides, but it still says something about students. Students generally want to be in school, despite everything families and teachers hear to the contrary from them.
In summary, I believe this crisis has exposed several weaknesses in the current educational model as well as those in the possibility of schools to be successful with remote learning. Personally, I feel we will not return to business as usual after this crisis ends, there will be definite and dramatic changes both inside education and our daily lives outside of the classroom. But, despite some of these changes relating to how we choose to live our lives, many of these changes can and should be for the better. Schools should be encouraged to truly embrace and close the technology gap both in instruction and student accessibility. Families should grow closer to one another and reconsider many of the commitments and time-burns they run their kids to and from on a daily basis, rethinking the importance of how they choose to schedule leisure time together outside of work and school. And, many people will learn the importance of thinking more before spending frivolously on things with less intrinsic value in improving their their lives. The world will definitely change around us, the real question is: how will we change both as human beings and citizens?
For starters, I KNOW I haven't been a good blogger this school year. It's simply been an insanely busy year for me both professionally and personally. But, that is about to change. I am vowing to return to regular blogging to share my thoughts and experiences in the classroom and education in general. So, let's get started!
As we all know, the world around us is constantly changing. Our latest hurdle to overcome is the COVID-19 outbreak and pandemic. If you are like me, you watch the nightly news and have seen all of the information out there being relayed about this new threat to humanity. And, make no bones about it, this threat is scary. But, I want to look at it from a different perspective...a more positive one in my mind: what opportunity does this provide for educators to reflect upon our educational models? Many school districts across the nation are closing as a result of just how contagious this virus is and are moving to a remote learning model so they can continue to deliver education to their students and keep some sense of normalcy in all of our lives. Our school district and the state of North Carolina are no exception in this change. We were recently told that the district will be closed for a minimum of three weeks and just yesterday, the governor announced closing all schools for the next two weeks. So, let's take a look at how this affects my students and my content delivery.
For many years now, I have used an online learning management system (LMS) in my classroom. I've gone through Blackboard, moved to Moodle, explored Edmodo, considered Google Classroom and finally settled on Schoology. While different platforms will meet different teachers' needs, I found Schoology to be the best at meeting my needs due to the large number of resources and tools it offers for free as well as the very user friendly interface for both educators and students. I use my LMS every day with my students both in and out of my classroom. However, I have never made that leap to completely flipping my classroom out of fear for my students simply not doing what they are told and because some students might lack access to the necessary technology, even though I know they most likely have everything they need. In case you don't know, a flipped classroom is a method of teaching students where the content is delivered outside of the classroom, typically online, while moving the activities that are commonly used for homework and such to inside the classroom.
For years, I have wondered what would happen if I moved to a remote learning model even though my students continue to meet with me daily. I have fantasized about teaching from home and living a much more comfortable and rewarding life by doing so. Now, educators everywhere are finding themselves scrambling to answer the question of how they will deliver content, materials and instruction to students while in mandatory closures due to the virus. And, I find myself finally getting the answers to my ever-looming questions, as well as being better prepared to do so than most of my peers thanks to setting up my LMS over the years, using it with my students on a daily basis, and having experienced the excellent online learning provided in Adobe's Education Exchange. On a side note, if you are an educator reading this, the Ed Ex currently has a course on Flipped Learning for Your Classroom, which is 100% free! Just create a free Adobe account and sign up for Ed Ex...you may even earn CEUs for taking their online courses!
So, how will my students succeed in light of this pandemic emergency? For starters, I polled my students before we went into closure to see who has and who doesn't have access to the necessary technology as well as what kind of access they have. All of my students reported some level of access, be it computers with internet access or cell phones with data plans.
There are lessons I do in school where students will not have access to the same resources we use in my classroom while at home, I know this and need to find a way to compensate for it. This week, I am working my way through the content in my LMS to determine what is critical for my students to complete and what can be passed on until a later date when we return to regular classes. Some of the assignments I normally give to my students will change from hands-on creations to informational reading, vocabulary exercises, written reflections and online discussions. Some of it is basic conceptual understanding and while I prefer them to do hands-on experiences, it simply won't be possible and they all need the information to be successful later on. So, understanding the information is more important than the exercises.
Next, comes the problem of software. Luckily, Adobe offered schools with current licenses access to named user accounts for their students which enables them to use the software in the school's current license at home. While I wish our district had gone this route from the start, we have station licenses which means they can only use the software at school. This offer from Adobe is a real game changer for our students and greatly appreciated! Schools have to apply for access and our district did so as soon as this opportunity was announced. I am currently waiting to hear about approval. If you want more information on this, read this article. And, Adobe isn't the only company making their tools available to schools. Google has offered free access to the premium version of their Hangouts Meet software and other companies are doing the same. On top of that, some of the software I use already offers free access to students such as Autodesk 3ds Max and the Unity Game Engine. However, not all students have computers that can run this software. So, I need to find some alternatives for all of the software we use. I already have a long list of options compiled on my Digital Artistic Tools page here on my site.
To conclude, while this will be a challenging time for many, I am excited about this forced experiment in remote learning. While I fear some of my peers will not fair too well in this new educational model, it just might change the way I teach for the rest of my career in education. Over the years, I have done my level best to make sure my students are self-sufficient in their education and this will be a real test for some of them. But, I know they are well prepared for this kind of a shift in education and will be successful. If you are a fellow educator in a similar situation, a simple search online will reveal all kinds of amazing free resources that can help you as well. Everything from full-on LMS suites that are free (I'm telling you, check out Schoology, it offers a lot of tools in their free version), lessons and activities for every curriculum area that can be completed with little to no additional preparation, as well as tons of free tools you can use to deliver instruction and content to your students in interesting and engaging ways. Regardless of what everyone does in terms of continuing to teach in these trying times, remember the most important thing is to stay safe and well throughout this worldwide crisis!
What are your thoughts about flipping the classroom and remote learning? Add a comment below!
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.
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.