This past week, I brought 23 students (and a fellow educator) to the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC). Doing so has become an annual event for my most advanced and/or most promising game design students. I generally take students who are currently in CTE Advanced Studies and Advanced Game Design as well as a handful of students in my Game Art & Design classes. Attending the conference gives students a chance to learn about topics that are relevant to the game industry from professionals as well asspeak with representatives from colleges/universities that offer degree programs in game design. Typically, ECGC is a major highlight of being part of the Game Design concentration at DSA for many of my students.
In the past, I have spoken about the importance of making real-world industry connections for students, so I will not bore my audience with a repeat of that information. If you want to learn more about my thoughts on this topic, check out these filtered posts. Instead, I want to tell you a little bit about the sessions that I specifically attended this year. Due to transportation conflicts, we could only stay at the conference a limited amount of time each day this year. While this meant missing several presentations, it did allows us to hear up to three talks per day and spend some time checking out booths manned by schools and companies. The talks that I attended included:
I want to focus on one of the talks I enjoyed enjoyed most this year which fell in the Art Track: Snyder's talk on digital painting. During his talk, Snyder explained how it is extremely important to examine different artistic styles, and not just those of a digital variety. He stressed how examining the way artists use a number of techniques like oils and opacity with paint on canvas can improve one's digital skills. Snyder pointed out that you can look at the work of video game artists and trace back their influences in a clear and concise manner all the way back to the classic artists who inspired those artists they were inspired by while learning their craft. But, he didn't just state the importance of looking at the classics, he also encouraged examining more modern art and how it pushes current conventions to its limits. He noted that by taking the time to become more knowledgeable of style, one also learns to pay closer attention to detail. This, in turn, helps them become better digital artists. A second thing he stressed was the importance of not overusing the undo option. To quote Bob Ross, "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents." Sometimes, it is the mistakes that help to make an artistic piece really shine or focus the viewer's attention to the part that really matters.
After making sure everyone understood why examining traditional art was important, he discussed the artistic tools he specifically uses when creating a digital work. His main tool set includes: Photoshop using a simple round brush with sensitivity turned on and an inexpensive Wacom Bamboo tablet! He then demonstrated how he uses classic paintings to improve his skills. He began by opening an image of as painting by Sargent in Photoshop where he noted the manner in which Sargent used oils to build up paint, forming his self portrait. He then began blocking out a copy of it using the digital tools in a space next to the painting. It was nowhere near polished but in less than five minutes, you could clearly see the features coming through. Snyder's talk will become the inspiration for a new assignment on digital painting techniques to use in class next year. But, I will have to flush that out more over the coming summer.
Over the past few weeks, dare I say two months, I have struggled with being a teacher. Between Winter and Spring Breaks is always a difficult time for many teachers and I am no exception. If you look at my blog regularly, you may have noticed the drop-off in posts. This is a large part of the reason for this lack of writing. But, the end is near and I am rejuvenated after last week's Spring Break! I am hoping the same goes for both my fellow educators and my students alike! So, it is time to return to regular writing habits.
Over the next two days, I will spend time with my advanced students (and a handful from GAD) at the East Coast Game Conference. While we cannot stay for the whole day because of bus issues, the students will get to hear six talks by professional game designers as well as meander around the expo hall to see displays and speak with both professionals in the industry and college/university representatives about their programs. Each student (and myself, of course) will be doing a blog post as a follow-up assignment to attending the conference. So, early next week, take a peek at the student blogs for the Advanced Game Design and Advanced Studies students if you are curious to see what they took away from this always important experience! And, come back here to see what I found interesting about this annual experience.
It is easy to tell when a project/assignment has truly motivated a group of students. To ensure this result, one must make certain there is a clear purpose behind the lesson and students understand that purpose. One of the best ways this takes place is by using hands-on, community service-based projects that take on meaning outside of a number in a teacher's gradebook. This is certainly the case for my CTE Advanced Studies students who are working on the VR Prison Flip project.
This past Monday, while all their classmates were enjoying an extended weekend, eight students rose out of bed early to meet me at DSA for a trip to the prison site in Scotland County. Each knew we were leaving campus at 7am and agreed this trip was essential to our success, despite the sacrifices they needed to make. After a two hour drive, we arrived and began put the plan we established the previous week into motion in order to gather all the measurements needed to complete our modeling of the prison. The students were divided into two teams of four with each individual having a distinct job: two were to take the physical measurements using both tape and laser measuring tools, one was to record those measurements on hand sketches of each building and the fourth was to photograph everything possible to get a sense of textures and physical space. Since we only need to be concerned with one building's interior, one team was assigned to measure it while the other would start measuring every other building's exterior on the site.
It was decided that our first area of focus would be the old cell block building. In terms of projected purpose and complexity, this was the most important building on the site. Besides being oddly shaped, this was the only facility that required interior measurements. So we knew we would be spending the majority of the trip on it. Growing Change envisions this building being used as a museum/conference space as well as housing for visitors of incarcerated family members just down the road at the new prison facility.
Once inside, the students had to plan how to attack small rooms, hallways, and how measure locked areas. It was quickly discovered that the building was completely symmetrical, making the task at hand much easier than originally expected. They measured everything they could including individual cells and the objects contained within them. They could then transfer the measurements quickly to the other side of the sketch and before they knew it, they were done! Still, due to the importance of precision, it took them a couple of hours to complete their assigned location.
On the outside, the building had more walls than the average building with twists and turns at nearly every 30 feet! Students also realized it was important to locate every window's location. They did this by measuring a single window and then identifying how far it was from the edge of the building to the center location of each window along the wall. This way, they could center the windows on that spot and require fewer numbers to crunch when we returned to campus.
After a short break for lunch, the students tackled the remaining buildings at the prison. The goal was to complete the rest of the facility as fast and accurately as possible so we could make it back to Durham ahead of schedule. The site was split up and each team knew what they needed to do. Luckily, the remaining buildings were generally rectangular in design, making the afternoon work much easier than the morning. And by mid-afternoon, we were back on the bus and headed home arriving on campus at 5:30!
The trip made for a long and busy day together but it was also very productive. So, what did the students take away from this trip? Besides collecting the remaining measurements needed to complete the project, they put skills learned in math class to practical use. Some of the buildings were too tall to measure by hand as we didn't have access to a ladder, so they had to estimate roof angles to calculate actual height. Besides typical class lessons, students learned the importance of attention to detail and planning. Much of the interior was glossed over in terms of content capture until we discussed what needed to be measured to get an accurate vision of the site's current state. And, they saw how coming together as a team with a plan can help them all benefit in completing this ambitious project. I think it is fair to say that sacrificing our time off to work on the VR Prison Flip project was a day well spent!
Last Friday, the students in Game Art & Design attended the US2020 STEM n Art Expo at The Frontier in RTP. This was the second US2020 field trip I have taken students on in the past couple of years. This expo presented them with an opportunity for them to learn about different ways that various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers use art to accomplish their goals. The event was split into three experiences: Path to the Park, Speed Mentoring and a Food Truck Rodeo for lunch.
Most students seemed to really enjoy the speed mentoring the most. In speed mentoring, students had an opportunity to speak with four to five different individuals while discussing what they do in four minute bursts. It was interesting to see the kids move around quickly to interact face-to-face with complete strangers while not being distracted by each other or their technologies. This may be something I can use in my classroom, though not in a mentoring fashion.
In Path to the Park, several displays were set up featuring a wide variety of careers. Students got to take part in a wide variety of hands-on exhibits ranging from scientific research to audio and graphical work. As one would expect, the display to draw the largest interest from both my students and the kids in attendance in general was display on virtual reality. This booth allowed students got to experience an HTC Vive by using Tilt Brush to paint in 3D space. This display was was the most relevant exhibit to game design, though they did have a hacking Minecraft display as well.
While you would expect an hour of downtime for lunch during the Food Truck Rodeo, I was pleasantly surprised to see they had set up one more display outside. While the focus for most kids was on eating during this time, several explored a display on robotics. They also enjoyed checking out the makeshift shop they put on-site.
The only surprise, or downside, to this event was that there weren't any representatives from the game industry present. Seeing as we have such a large game industry in the RTP area, this really surprised and disappointed me. But, overall, this field trip was a success as kids got to see that the skills they learn as game design students can be transferred to a wide variety of careers. There seemed to be a lot of younger students in attendance. This makes me wonder if I should take Sci Vis kids next year instead of Game Design...or maybe both. Regardless, I would definitely consider taking students again next year, depending on the topic of the event.
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.
One of the highlights of being in the Game Art & Design concentration at Durham School of the Arts is attending the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC). This event, which is held annually in Raleigh, boasts the largest gathering of professional game designers on the east coast. The focus of this year's conference was virtual reality (VR). Students had an opportunity to listen to talks such as:
While all of us could attend talks in any of the sessions tracks including: narrative, art, design, audio, programming, serious games, Indie games, Unreal engine, and portfolio critiques, I spend most of my time listening to the speakers in the design track. Some of the topics that caught my attention were:
Baldwin's talk focused on making sure that team leads consider and touch on each of the following areas when doing critiques: sensitivity, clarity, inspiration, generosity, timeliness, honesty, openness, curiosity, time, follow-through, role identification and riffing. After the talk, I asked the students who attended this session with me how well I meet those requirements as defined in the session. Their response: around 70%. While this is pretty good as some of the items discussed mainly pertain to team leads at game companies, I know there are areas that I need to work on improving. With all that is expected of teachers, I know that I could put more time into critiques, both verbally and in print.
One way I would like to do improve my critiques is to plan on adding a day completely dedicated to critique every couple of weeks starting next school year. This will allow students to see and discuss each other's work as well as pick up tips from me on how to improve their skills. Also, such a day will give them a nice breather between assignments, allowing them to critically think about the work they are doing rather than just plowing through the assigned work. Learning critiquing skills is also an important life skill for students, so I may even have them take the lead on some of those days as well. I may try these techniques a couple of times this year as well, but as the we are coming up to exams and the year is ending before much longer, it really doesn't make sense to make any drastic changes to how we have been doing things all year.
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.