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...
We are now two weeks into the current school year and things are starting to settle back into the normal routine. Gone are the days of nervousness over speaking in front of a new group of students and I am finally getting close to having all my new students' names committed to memory, though I am still slipping at times. As part of my personal education plan (PEP) for this year, I decided to work on reflecting on classroom activities and my personal thoughts on education. Granted, I do this on a daily basis regardless but I have rarely done so in such a transparent manner as posting my thoughts publicly on a blog! So, this will be the first of many posts where everyone will be able to see the sort of things I struggle with when thinking about my lessons and their effectiveness in teaching my students.
Currently, students in both my Scientific Visualization (Sci Vis) and Game Art & Design (GAD) classes are examining the historical advancements related to their respective curriculum. And, as we all know, one technique often used in classrooms when learning about historical events involves having students create timelines. Last year while working on a Kenan Fellowship, I was introduced to ChronoZoom, an open source, online digital tool designed to make creating timelines more interesting and informative for students. It allows students to create exhibits (historical events) and provide multimedia artifacts as evidence of the event, then place them together in a single historical timeline to show relationships and relevance. It seemed easy to use when I first learned about it and more interesting than the index card timeline which is recommended for this activity in my curriculum guides. Besides, ChronoZoom involves the use of technology and I try my best to run a fully digital classroom. So I decided to give it a try.
All I can say about this experience last year was that it was "mostly" a disaster! I didn't understand the tool as well as I thought I did and most of the kids experienced a wide variety of problems. Artifacts and exhibits were lost and the students spent many hours trying to create their timelines both in school and at home. I truly wondered if this technology was buggy or if it was our understanding of it. I now feel it was mostly us.
Not being an individual to quit after one bad experience with a tool, I decided to give it another shot this year. First, with my students in Game Art & Design who had used it last year in Sci Vis and then with my new students in Sci Vis. The students in GAD quickly repeated the same mistakes. After just two days, they were so frustrated that we abandoned using it in their class. I created an alternate assignment for them based on their skills in Photoshop and they adjusted to the change quickly.
However, my students in Sci Vis have not received the same instruction on Photoshop yet, so I moved forward with demonstrating and instructing them on ChronoZoom, including some of the information I learned from last year's experience. But, I hedged my bet on it this year. Instead of requiring them to use ChronoZoom, I explained that I would like them to try it as one technique for creating a timeline but if they wanted to change after trying it out or if they experienced problems, they could use any technique they wanted. However, all timelines, regardless of creation method, needed to meet the same requirements: minimum of eight exhibits which they felt held the greatest value in the development of visualization techniques, each containing 2-6 artifacts as supporting evidence and information. Besides taking into consideration potential technological problems or difficulty that some students may have with the tool, this allows students some freedom of individual choice in how they complete the assignment.
As the Sci Vis students began to work, I moved around the room helping them with various problems they encountered within the tool. Most were simply issues related to trying to add exhibits outside the confines of the time span they originally set. Some of the questions related to the information they were including in their artifacts. So I provided some guidance when asked wanted to leave my response as open ended as possible in order to make the students consider the importance of the item they considered including. By the end of the period, everyone had saved their progress and were well on their way to completing the assignment.
When I checked email the next morning, I had my first message from a student asking about using a different technique. She had the same problem some of the students experienced last year: altered or disappearing exhibits and artifacts. This concerns me as I was thinking we had moved past that issue this year. This will need further examination as to what students are doing to cause this problem as I have yet to be able to duplicate it myself. But, seeing this happen a second year in a row, I may have to move to another tool once again for this activity. At this point, I am curious about how many other students experienced this problem.
If you have used ChronoZoom and experienced this issue but found a solution, I would love to hear what you did. Please comment below if you know what causes this to occur or how to stop it from happening with students.
When an individual states that they are a gamer, the first questions that comes to mind for most people include:
However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in tabletop games thanks in large part to the development of Eurogames such as Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride and many others. These games tend to require a short period of time to play, contain lots of social interaction, use simple (and a wide variety of) game mechanics and lack player elimination during gameplay. And, unlike video games, tabletop games have a longer shelf life as they are not dependent on hardware that quickly becomes obsolete. You can still play tabletop games that originate from hundreds of years back but have great difficulty playing the popular console games from even just 10-20 years ago. In fact, tabletop games have grown so popular in recent years that many popular video games have been converted to the format. There are highly acclaimed tabletop versions of games like XCOM, Portal, Gears of War, Bioshock, Street Fighter and even World of Warcraft. And that is not to say they fall into the genre of roleplaying games.
One of the things a game designer needs to keep in mind when converting a digital title to tabletop format is how to keep the feel of the original game. This becomes an interesting balancing act for designers because the rules, procedures and mechanics need to be significantly simplified due to players officiating the game instead of a computer. But, it must still remind the player of the gameplay they experienced on a computer/console. For this post, I want to examine how this was recently accomplished with a classic game many will remember from their youth: The Oregon Trail.
For those who do not know, The Oregon Trail is a video game title produced in the early 1970s by a couple of student teachers and has often been used in schools since its creation. The game has continued being wildly popular since then with new releases coming every few years covering a variety of platforms (Macintosh, DOS, Windows, Wii, and 3DS) and as recently as 2012, when it was ported to the Windows phone platform. The Oregon Trail video game was designed to teach students about life in the 19th century as pioneers traveled by covered wagon along the Oregon trail from Independence, MO to the Williamette Valley along with the hardships they endured along the way. The goal of the game is simple: move your character to the Williamette Valley without being killed by starvation, disease or any other peril along the way. So, how did they measure up with the card game?
So, why/how do I use tabletop games in my classroom? By examining and creating tabletop games, young designers have to think critically about the various components that make up games including: objective, conflict, rules, procedures, resources, probability, and boundaries. And, there is often a faster turnaround time to create a board/card game as well as see problems with the overall design. Because students need to think about the limitations of people officiating their game instead of a computer doing it for their players, examining, playing and creating tabletop games forces them to think more critically about what will make their game fun for other people to play. If a game is too difficult or too easy, players will stop playing the game so it is important for young designers to grasp the concept/techniques of carefully balancing the components that make up all game formats.
So, the next time a friend says let's play a game and you see them pull out a box and dice, don't come up with an excuse to do something different or mock them because it's not on a computer/console. You just might learn something about design techniques and have fun along the way!
We have all heard the phrase practice makes perfect. But have you ever thought about what this really means and how it works? I am guessing the answer to that question is actually no, if you are honest with yourself. It has been said that people need to hear/repeat the same information/skills a minimum of seven times before it begins to stick. This is one of the reasons we ask students to repeat the same skill over-and-over again.
I have seen this force at work in my own life. As a child, I loved to draw. I would sit at my grandmother's kitchen table for hours thinking up all kinds of fantastical characters and scenes to bring to life on paper. Over time, I started to take my love of drawing more seriously. I can remember seeing ads in the local newspaper for home correspondence art instruction schools and practicing for hours until I was satisfied with my drawing of Tippy the turtle, Cubby the bear and the Pirate in the hopes of mailing in my application and winning one of their prizes, even though I was only 12 years old. I wanted to be an artist!
While I never sent my application in, my parents enrolled me in a local drawing class. I got pretty good too. My culminating piece was the head of a Siamese cat that I gave to my grandmother as a Christmas gift that year. It hung in her living room up to the day she passed away and then made its way back to me. Completing it took a lot of repetition and several months of practice for me. And, I felt like I was well on my way to achieving my goal.
Unfortunately, shortly after completing my cat drawing and as I got older, lots of other interests caught my attention and my practicing ground to a halt as a result. I quickly learned there is a downside to stopping any practice: you can un-learn a skill by ignoring it just as fast, if not faster, than you can improve through repetition. I am only now returning to my personal artistic pursuits after decades of ignoring my earlier interests in a desire to improve my classroom instruction on art as well as help me to relax more. As a result, I am back to starting out with stick people and other objects that are rather elementary in nature. In short, I need to get back to good, honest, regular practice.
These truths don't only pertain to traditional artwork, they are equally true with respect to the digital arts as well. I regularly require students to complete the same task in a variety of manners so they can grow to enjoy the activity as well as improve. Often, I find myself sneaking these skills into lessons by having them draw their own conclusions on how to complete activities without fully instructing them to use earlier skills in newer lessons. My hope is that these skills and techniques will become second nature to use but more importantly, they develop a lifelong love for the digital medium and, as a result, eventually pursue a career in the digital arts. However, when students fail to take repetition and practice seriously as a chance to improve and only put forth a halfhearted effort, both their interest and skills diminish over time.
This is one of those things that I struggle with in how the state takes a modular approach towards the digital arts and the game design concentration in particular. A prime example of this is how we are expected to teach students 3D modeling skills. There is a heavy focus on 3D modeling basics during a student's first year in the concentration while taking Scientific Visualization. However, the following year focuses almost entirely on 2D game design, with a minuscule 3D component being presented approximately three-quarters into the school year. By this time, students rarely have any practice with 3D modeling for a huge chunk of time as teachers often push forward with new material as presented in their curriculum blueprint. I would argue that students shouldn't even touch 3D modeling until their junior year class of Advanced Game Art & Design (AGAD), where their focus shifts from 2D to 3D in nature. In the meantime, they should gain a firm grounding in 2D digital techniques, which will serve them better, even in 3D modeling, when they begin creating skins to apply to their models. Sure, some basic 3D concepts can and should be presented during Scientific Visualization as it focuses on visualization techniques in general, but to provide students with a huge assortment of skills and then ignore continued development of them for the better part of the next year and a half does the students a terrible disservice.
What is my plan for the coming school year in reference to repetition and digital artistic skills? I am hoping to find a way to allow students the freedom to continue building these skills throughout the course of the year so they never lose them in the first place and requiring retracing one's steps entirely when they actively use them in AGAD. They may or may not be graded on these activities, but I want them to continue using the techniques so they improve and grow to love 3D modeling over time. Straying from traditional instructional time may make it more difficult to get through the curriculum as the state prescribes materials in the blueprint, but I believe my students will be better off in the long run for me doing so.
So, the next time you are asked to keep doing the same task over-and-over again and believe it is a mindless activity, don't complain and put your best effort forward. Challenge yourself to do something that uses those skills in an uncomfortable manner and over time, you will get better at using them. Eventually, you may even come to enjoy them and develop a lifelong desire to learn more about the techniques or even take on a career that continues using them.
I believe that one of the most important things a teacher can do for their students, especially in their advanced classes, is to provide them with the opportunity to experience real-world interactions with industry. While this may not always be a possibility, doing so helps kids understand several important things.
First, it allows students to connect skills they have learned in school to real-world applications. Quite often, the lessons kids learn in school represent little-to-nothing more than a grade to them. By using these skills while collaborating with an industry outside of the school setting, students come to understand the importance of the skills and techniques they have acquired in a classroom directly relates to their future outside of it. For example, while it is great that a kid can solve for an unknown variable using a mathematical formula on paper, the same formula takes on a whole new meaning when it has implications on where a student needs to place their equipment to properly register movements using a motion capture system.
A second benefit is providing understanding of how to interact as part of a team. As educators, we often require our students to work on group projects in order to simulate being part of a team. However, this often does a poor job of simulating team work. There are always some students who learn quickly that they will have at least one team member who refuses to accept a low grade and that individual will often compensate for students who do little to no work. So, they will get a good grade for minimal effort. This is not how being a team member works in industry. If a team member puts in minimal effort on the job, this can dramatically alter the results and often they will lose their job. So it is important that students learn to pull their own weight as part of a team before they experience such negative consequences after graduating from high school.
Another thing teachers do is provide feedback to students on how to improve their work. But, quite often, students do not take that advice to improve their product. There are many reasons for this such as they are satisfied with the initial grade, perhaps they are just being lazy or are overwhelmed with other classwork so they don't want to put in the extra effort to improve their work, or maybe they let their ego tell them that they are the artist and their finished product is exactly what they wanted to create, so they refuse to hear it can be improved. Regardless of the reason, one cannot ignore the requests of a real-world client. Students learn quickly that they are providing a service and what that person wants is what needs to be done, regardless of personal feelings towards doing it. In other words, they learn to let go of their own biases and egos to satisfy the client's needs or risk losing business or their job.
You might ask, how am I as an educator doing this with my students? In the middle of this past year's third quarter, David Stein from Duke University approached me about having the students assist in a year-long project he submitted for a grant to State Farm. The grant involved actively engaging students in creating a virtual reality walk-through of an abandoned prison that is being flipped into usable community space in rural Laurinburg, NC by the nonprofit group, Growing Change. While this piqued my interest, I had some concerns but definitely wanted to hear him out.
Also, one might ask how does this project correlate with what my students have learned during their time in the game design concentration at DSA? Students will use skills gained going all the way back to their freshman year in Scientific Visualization and continuing right through their junior year. They will need to do a lot of 3D modeling, programming using the Unity game engine, texture creation, audio editing, and communication with both all involved in the project in and outside of the class as well as sharing their project with the general public. Luckily, the students each had an area that caught their attention and selected a role that meets their personal strengths.
As I stated earlier, I had some concerns about this project. The big concern involved having the students work in the Unity game engine using components that have recently been added to allow for virtual reality development. The kids have less than six months of experience working in Unity and it is not one of my stronger areas of knowledge either. Luckily, David connected us with Josh Setzer and Mike McArdle of Lucid Dream VR to assist us. They are located just a few blocks from DSA in the American Underground and their company focuses solely on the use of virtual reality technologies. So their knowledge and expertise will be greatly appreciated and this did away with some of the concerns I had before meeting them. It also helps my students learn how to work with a team that is not necessarily all in the same room, so good communication skills are essential!
So, when do we get started on our project? Immediately! Since the class these students were in this past year (Advanced Game Design) is currently in pilot status and the skills needed for the project are related to the curriculum but not necessarily directly in it, we decided to start preparing as soon as we decided we wanted to do the project. All progress on repetitive tasks came to a grinding halt and each student started to focus on the skills they will use as part of the team. Some students began working on improving their graphics skills. Several explored the use of low-poly count modeling techniques, a skill that is essential to making the models look realistic while minimizing the amount of system resources needed while another student explore how to create realistic 2D textures to add to the models. A couple of kids continued working in the Unity game engine so they will be ready for creating the walk-through. One student explored audio editing and musical composition and the final student began working on how we will share our progress with the public and school community. In short, the students are forming a functional team based on their individual strengths!
We also had the good fortune to take a field trip down to the prison during the final week of the school year. While there, the students had the opportunity to learn more about the site's history from the founder of Growing Change, Noran Sanford. They could also explore some of the locations on the site and take reference photographs as well as gather some basic measurements. This trip was an eye-opening experience for the students as it solidified their roles in the finished product along with what they will need to accomplish.
So, overall, things are coming together. I am sure I will discuss our progress over the coming year in my blog. So, come back here to learn how my students' experience in working with industry for real-world clients continues to change over time and improve their understanding of how their education translates into employable skills.
I skipped last week's post due to several reasons outside of my control. So in this post, I want to talk about something that is a touchy subject for many individuals both in and outside of education: standardized testing.
Over the past week and a half, our school has been deep in the throws of final exams. It's that time of year that everyone both dreads and looks forward to simultaneously. According to individuals who clearly know better than me, standardized tests are the culmination of a year's worth of hard work where students demonstrate mastery of the skills learned. They also claim standardized testing shows how effective the teacher has been in preparing those students for their future. But what I think of when I consider these exams is hours spent in mindless, almost robotic, activity demonstrating memorization of terms but not mastery of anything. Now, bear in mind, that I can only speak on the exams given in my area of study, but I often hear other teachers complain about the same thing. So, you might ask, why do I feel this way? Let me explain.
As a game design teacher, I understand that it is important for students to know terms and definitions along with other background information about the industry. I mean, how else can I expect them to talk intelligently when comparing mechanics used in different game systems, discuss the tools an audio engineer utilize when creating sound effects, or explain the rationale for saving images in both native and rendered formats? Clearly, this information is critical to success in comprehending what we do and why we do it. So, standardized tests sound like a good way to test student knowledge! You would think they could identify which tool/term is being used when given a definition or scenario in which a task is being completed. So, once again, you might ask, then why do I feel this way about standardized testing?
Being a CTE teacher, I am very focused on preparing students for careers in industry. And, to be frank, terms and definitions are simply not even remotely on the industry's radar. Having spoken with several professional game designers, along with company recruiters, one glaring thing comes across as the most important thing they look for: what can you DO! College degrees and background are irrelevant, skills are not. Nor does industry care much about what the state crams into many of our yearlong curriculum, especially since course requirements rarely get updated more than once every 3-5 years. We all know technology doesn't take that long to progress and neither does industry. Heck...the current Sci Vis curriculum still requires students to know rudimentary information on 3.5" floppy disks! When is the last time you used one of those? And, like industry, the best teachers refuse to wait that long to update the material and lessons used in their classrooms. Updating curriculum as we go does a better job of preparing students for life outside of our classroom walls, even if this knowledge does nothing or has a minimal effect on preparing them for standardized testing. In fact, doing so often burns through time that is needed to introduce students to the tested material in our often over-inflated curriculum. And, personally, it absolutely kills me to share outdated information with my students solely because it might appear on their final exam. So, I tend to preface such material by saying that although the students will likely never see this information outside of school, they might need to know it for their exam at the end of the year. Then, we move on again.
Don't get me wrong, I fully believe that having good background understanding and well-rounded knowledge of the industry as a whole is important to forming a better student and employee. I am fully invested in this belief. But, standardized testing, which can often make or break a student's ability to proceed forward in their education, simply does not demonstrate mastery of the material, it only shows rote memorization. And, much (though clearly not all) of that material is already dated within a year of curriculum being released to teachers. It is easy to learn terms and definitions with the old drill-and-kill method of studying that many of us used years ago to pass exams back when we were in school. These are the reasons that I find (most) standardized testing to be a gigantic waste of time and resources.
Here's something to ponder: think back to when you were in school and had to pass that all-important exam on, say, world history. How many of those facts do you still know today and of those that you do remember, how many do you regularly use in your life now? I bet the answer is very few, if any at all. How has being able to identify information on a multiple choice test improved your life as a person, citizen or employer/employee? I bet it hasn't. That's not to say that a basic understanding of the concepts you learned in those classes hasn't made you a better person. It's the overarching concepts and skills, not the specifics, that made you a more well rounded individual and a better person. Not being able to identify who signed any particular treaty or what year something happened.
Yes, students should be tested on understanding of material at the end of the year. But, these exams should include some form of hands-on demonstration of skills combined with a more comprehensive display of knowledge rather than low-level thinking such as identification of a term on a multiple choice test., especially in classes such as those taught by CTE teachers. Then, and only then, will my opinion of end-of-year exams change with regard to their ability to demonstrate student mastery of the information and materials they are presented in our classes.
So, as another school year draws to a close, I wish all students a restful summer. I look forward to seeing you again next Fall in my classroom where we will continue exploring the skills and tools used in the game industry.
I have now been the lead educator for the Game Art & Design (GAD) concentration at DSA for more than half of my teaching career. In that time, I have grown as an individual, an educator and a gamer through numerous personal and professional opportunities and experiences. However, as a CTE teacher, it is often easy for one to get stuck in the rut of using a curriculum that is provided for you and simply being repetitive over the years. I have seen this behavior in some teachers and have even experienced it myself from time-to-time as the year drags on and we grow weary from overextending ourselves. But, I didn't go into education, and game design specifically, to spin my tires in the mud. This week, I took a long overdue look at just how I have been doing this with relation to teaching 3D modeling.
I have long found 3ds Max to be the most difficult piece of software for me to teach. It requires a different way of looking at digital art, which is traditionally a very flat piece of work. Don't believe me? Look around the Internet at digital artwork. You will find fan art, concept art, simple 2D animations, digital photographs, personal videos, company advertisements, logos, graphic design and yes - video games. All are flat.
But, in recent years, digital 3D artwork has become more relevant. Back in the mid-1990s, as cost of computers started to become more reasonable and advances in hardware and software seemed to occur on a daily basis, a variety of industries began to focus on using 3D artwork in their operations. The cost was reasonable compared to the statement using such technologies made about your work or company. Pixar pushed the popularity of 3D digital animations in entertainment with Toy Story. The game industry was not far behind with iD Software's release of games like Wolfenstein 3D and the original Doom. And the film industry started moving away from using real-world dangerous special effects and adding computer generated (CGI) scenes, effects and even characters. As a result, the use of 3D digital artwork has become ubiquitous in entertainment and has now moved into other industries such as advertising, architecture, and research/development, to only name a few industries. Now, the current trends point toward the integration of 3D printing and the use of virtual reality (VR) to give the individual an even more personal experience with one's product or art. And, this will result in the increased demand for skilled 3D artists.
Warning: Poor excuse follows - as a teacher, I am often stretched well beyond my knowledge, ability, interest and energy levels. Combining this with the state providing me with usable, though often poorly created, video tutorials to teach 3D modeling, I fell into the aforementioned rut with 3D modeling. However, after years of using these tutorials and considering the increasing importance of these skills, I made a conscious effort this quarter to do something about it.
Last year, I began digging deeper into creating 3D models myself. I began by using a book in the Sams Teach Yourself in 24 Hours series which focused on learning 3ds Max. This started to get my skills up-to-par and although I shared a healthy bit of what I learned from this book last year, I continued using the provided videos and still had personal difficulty with using the application. Since the start of the end of third quarter, when we started to work in 3D, I have done some critical thinking about this decision and dug even deeper into personally using the software.
Many of the tutorials I was provided all those years ago contain errors. Most of the errors are minor, like using words incorrectly. Need I say more than identify that the mesh is not edible, it is editable? Or they could have been edited better prior to distribution. For instance, there shouldn't be bells ringing for class change, intercoms making announcements, students talking in the background or clearly making abrupt ends to tutorials because they are being made during the school day. But, more importantly, the version of 3ds Max used for their instruction, as well as some of the techniques expressed in them, is very out of date. This causes confusion on the part of the students and leads them down the wrong road for learning the best practices to prepare them for a future in 3D digital art.
So, about two weeks ago, I decided to focus on the most egregious videos I was provided in my initial training for Scientific Visualization, the introductory course in the GAD concentration. Of the items I previously used, students seemed to experience the most difficulty with the tutorials in objective 6.03, covering the use of materials and maps. This resulted from the tutorials using what is now a legacy component known as the compact material editor while the current default in the software is the newer slate material editor. Although both have all the same options available in them, the compact editor requires several more steps prior to adding materials to one's model, constantly requiring one to move between parent and child materials in the same rollout locations. On the other hand, the slate editor is node-based and allows you to visually see how everything connects in one central view with the parameters of each material/map located off to the side. In other words, it's considerably more intuitive! So, I started with recreating those specific tutorials.
Prior to making the new tutorials, I had to work my way through the original items and script them out. This also allowed me to figure out where and how the differences occur in each version of the material editor. Most of the differences were relatively easy to spot, though I did run into a few problem areas. After two weeks of scripting, modeling, and recording, I shared the tutorials with the students. The kids who reached those particular tutorials expressed a healthy dose of gratitude to me for replacing the out-dated tutorials with the updated ones. While I still have several other tutorials to create, I now have a good start and summer is just around the corner. On top of this, I have a better personal understanding of 3D modeling and using 3ds Max in particular.
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.