This week, we drew a little closer to the end of the CTE Advanced Studies students' VR Prison Flip Project. Wednesday evening, the students shared their experience this year with family, friends, outside team members and guests from DPS/DSA. They had the opportunity to share a short video about what this year has meant to them as well as explain their roles and individual benefits. But, probably the most important thing they did, if you ask the students, was provide the guests the opportunity to experience the project first hand. This helped family members understand what their students have been doing all year.
However, as a teacher, I believe having this kind of event is important for a very different reason. One of the most important things a student can leave high school with is a good understanding of communicating ideas/accomplishments. While my students present in class on a regular basis, presenting to outside individuals is a very different thing. By holding events like this, students get a chance to share important accomplishments, reflect on the process they went through to meet a goal and lets the larger community know about the important progress they are making and why that progress matters. Being effective with such skills is an important thing to take away from school as they will be using their communication skills throughout college, their career, and life in general.
I have not posted a new blog in quite some time as I have been very busy since our return from winter break. But, I want to share some information about one of the items that has kept me in that loop of constant work and why I believe it is an important topic.
A number of weeks back, I received a true compliment that speaks to the direction my advanced students in the GAD concentration have been focused on since the start of this year. I was contacted by a representative from the US Department of Education and asked if I would be interested in serving as a reviewer for this year's EdSim Challenge! Although I was a little hesitant at first, since I had not personally sought to assist with the competition, I feel that being asked to join their review team is a true honor. I believe they approached me as a result of being a CTE teacher with students' using of virtual reality in the classroom and thanks to my participation in the Keenan Fellows program. I say this because this year's challenge is focused on the use of virtual reality, gaming and the future of the tech ed curriculums.
So, what was my role in the competition's process? Participants in the challenge submitted proposals around the topic theme in hope of winning a rather substantial cash prize earmarked for prototyping their idea. And, like most competitions, there are multiple rounds that occur to be considered for the prize. I was asked to be part of the first round of those reviews. While I cannot go into specifics about proposal content or review criteria, I believe it is safe to say that I received several amazing proposals to examine. Overall, I found the review process to be interesting. It gave me an opportunity to see how other educators around the country want to use the new technologies of virtual reality and incorporate gamification into their curriculum. For more information on the EdSim Challenge, see the link provided above.
By now you might be wondering what is gamification and how/why is it important in education? Gamification involves using game mechanics and design techniques to motivate individuals with some end goal in mind. There are industries outside of education which have been using gamification for years. For instance:
Virtual reality can bridge the divide between where kids are at and what we want them to learn. It allows them to "experience" lessons and attempt skills from a first-person position by creating a powerful, interactive learning activities. Students can help Washington maneuver his troops during the American Revolution, make important design decisions on a construction site, fight off a virus in the human body, and explore any number of other concepts that are hard to conceptualize in a traditional classroom setting. Rather than just listening to the teacher explain concepts or lessons, they become a part of those lessons, learning through hands-on experiences.
In short, taking part as a reviewer in the EdSim Challenge has both encouraged and energized me with regard to the direction education is taking. I was also encouraged to note that the Department of Education sees the value in using this kind of technology in classrooms. I hope the use of virtual reality continues to grow around the country and across curriculums, not just in the world of Technical Education!
During the summer of 2015, I spent my time at NC State learning about nanotechnology and sensor devices under the tutelage of Dr. Jess Jur and Dr. Elena Veety as a Kenan Fellow. During my time there, we explored using the Texas Instruments SensorTag CC2650STK to explore the use of sensors in collecting experimental data. As part of the program, we had to create a lesson that could be shared with teachers around the state. I used my experience with the SensorTag to create a lesson to be used by CTE teachers. The overall goals of this lesson included:
During the school year when I first implemented the lesson, I spent a lot of time on the background information. We took several weeks learning about sensors, their uses and why they are important before getting into the meat of the assignment on data manipulation. This year, I trimmed out a lot of the time spent on sensors. I had students research sensors and create infographics, but we forewent guest speakers and extra exercises that involved a lot of data manipulation outside of the actual lesson. By doing this, I trimmed down the amount of time we spent on material that was not part of the lesson and streamlined the completion of the unit on data visualization as whole.
This week, students will only be in school for two days as it is Thanksgiving week. They will spend today and early next week after returning from the break collecting sensor data based on their own experimental design. They will then have slightly over a week of hands-on experience with data manipulation, writing a short report about their data, creating an infographic based on that report, and presenting their results to the class.
Understanding how to manipulate data is important in a wide variety of industries. So, why did I try my best to speed up how we explore this important topic? Being at a magnet school with a focus on the arts, my students took an interest in game design with the expressed interest in artistic side of the industry. While data manipulation is important for game designers when examining the marketability of their game concepts, most of my students are interested in the artistic side of the industry. Up to this point, a lot of the work my students in Sci Vis have completed is related to science and/or other areas outside of art. It is well-passed time to make the move into examining the more artistic side of the curriculum. Besides being the reason students took my class in the first place, doing so as early as possible also encourages them to stay in my concentration right before we start looking at next school year's scheduling in the early Spring. If they do not get some art before then, they may not see the larger picture where it is important to take this class prior to getting into working with games next year. And, that worries me.
As a Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher, I understand how powerful it can be to expose our students to industry experiences. And, over the years, I have done so at every possible opportunity. This is one of the reasons I take my advanced students to the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC) every Spring. At the conference, they get to hear from and interact with industry leaders in the game industry. But, I also want my younger students to have this kind of exposure as well, even though I know they are not ready for the freedom and responsibility that I provide to students attending such a large scale event.
Last year, I took my students in Game Art & Design to the US2020 RTP STEM Expo, which focused on the game industry. This event had the feel of ECGC on a much smaller scale. It gave students access to both industry professionals and colleges/universities that offer degrees in game design, allowing them to hear about the various topics that matter to the industry while exploring industry careers and the higher education needed to attain them. The size of the expo made it more suitable for my younger students and easier to supervise them. I will be taking this year's GAD students back for their second expo in a few weeks which is focusing on the use of art in STEM careers. While it's a more general topic than the previous expo, it still equally relates to our game design concentration.
Another way I can expose students to industry professionals involves inviting guest speakers to visit my classes. Although this does not always work out as I often have two classes of the same curriculum separated by one or more periods each day, I haven't had any issues so far this year. My schedule is really convenient for guest speakers staying for multiple classes for the first time since I started teaching. Over the past two weeks, students in Sci Vis have been introduced to two industry professionals who spoke about using visualization techniques in their individual careers.
The first to visit my class was assistant director Richard White. He has worked on films such as Terminator: Genysis, 300: Rise of an Empire and the upcoming Max Steel as well as several TV shows. He explained to the students how digital effects are an integral part of the film industry, even at those moments when you think they are using live special effects such as bullet shots. He also explained how they use digital mock-ups of scenes for previsualizations in order to make the live shoot go much smoother and to make directorial edits before involving the entire film crew and actors.
They were also visited by Colin Dwan from Prologue Games, located right here in Durham. He discussed what skills are used in the creation of his narrative style games, which are currently being converted to VR. He provided real-world advice that mimics the information I give my students about employment in the game industry from a position of personal experience. This is something I am unable to do for them and it is always powerful for them to hear about how difficult it is to work in the game industry as well as the skill set they need to develop and how it connects with what I teach them over their four years in my classes. He also explained the tools that are used in the creation of his games, most of which are learned by students in the GAD concentration throughout their time in high school.
However, hearing from industry professionals is not solely important for my younger students. My CTE Advanced Studies students are working closely with the team from Lucid Dream VR in creating their virtual reality experience for Growing Change. In doing so, they get to learn how the same tools that create video games can be used outside of the game industry. They also learn what it is like to have real-world clients, how to work as a small design team, and how to overcome project difficulties as they arise.
Down the road, I have plans to bring several other professionals into my classroom. My daughter, Melanie Fisher-Wellman, who not only graduated from DSA herself but is the creative director for Boostopia B2C can speak as a graphic designer on the importance of understanding how to use the design principles as well as elements of design. Pierce Freelon of Blackspace Durham, a hub for Afrofuturist thought, can discuss his creative ventures in support of African-American youth. In the past, I have brought in Dr. Chris Hazard of Hazardous Software who works in the field of game theory both in terms of his own game company and as a contractor for the federal government. And, having such a huge connection to the game industry in our area, I am currently attempting to make some connections at Epic Games as well.
Each connection with industry professionals that I can provide gives my students a unique perspective on the creative industries and how the digital art are used outside of a school setting. While I hope these connections inspire my students to be even more interested in my curriculum and aware of how the skills they learn in GAD relate to more than just video games, hearing from industry professionals can also provide direction to students who might not be sure about what they want to do some day after high school.
I warn my readers now: some of what I write today might not be the most popular with many people, but I feel this is an important topic in need of being addressed with families and students, in particular.
Every year, I have at least one (and usually several more than one) student(s) who asks me a question I truly despise: is this good enough for a 100? This dreaded question has already been presented to me a couple of times this school year and I am sure I will be asked it many more times before June. Every time a student questions me in this manner, I respond the same way: I honestly don't care about the grade, I care that you learn the tools and techniques being taught in the lesson. If you are only concerned about the grade, I provided a rubric. Have you compared your work against it? If you learn the tools and techniques, the grade will follow. Now, allow me to explain this response.
Over the years, while working in education and before, I have seen a shift in mentality among policy makers, educational institutions (both higher learning and secondary schools in particular but it is now creeping into primary schools as well), parents and students. Once upon a time, a grade was supposed to indicate both what you currently know and what you need to spend more time focusing on in order to be prepared for what is to come. Nothing more, nothing less. These days, that thought has morphed into all that matters is the final number.
The message started at the federal level and has been working its way down through local educational policy makers for several years now. All students should expect to attend college. And, colleges tend to use each student's final average as their overall (or at least major) indicator for acceptance vs. rejection. So, it is understandable that the grade has become the focus for many parents and students alike. Every parent wants their child to be successful and in today's world, attending a good college often coincides with this desire, although it is not the only way to be successful. But, of equal importance, should be a deep understanding of the material being taught. If a student only learns in order to receive a grade, they are not looking at the larger picture and are not truly prepared for later classes or activities that build upon the earlier lessons while in high school. Quite often, they end up lacking the basic understanding that college/university professors assume their students already have based on their acceptance to the school. What results from only having a relationship with this information on a surface level is that these students typically struggle over time. In other words, when only the numerical grade is the most important feature of learning, students are being set up for a hard fall later on and possibly failure.
In order to succeed in my classes, students need to have a deep understanding of the tools and techniques presented to them in my lessons. This starts in their first class with me, Scientific Visualization, and continues straight through the following years if they decide to stick with the Game Art & Design concentration. In Sci Vis, students learn the basics of visualization techniques: how to effectively communicate visually through the use of design elements/principles and the basics of working with digital 2D graphics tools (Photoshop and Illustrator) as well as 3D tools (3ds Max). In subsequent years, those skills are reinforced, not retaught, in order to deepen the students' understanding of them while new tools and techniques are added to their list of skills, tools and techniques they need to master. If a student has only learned the material on a surface level to get a good grade, they will struggle throughout their remaining time in my classes. I have seen this in action time-and-time again. Will they pass the class? Quite likely as they have earned the grade and district policy puts such a high weight on the final exam. But they will struggle to keep up in subsequent classes.
When a student is fully engaged in their lessons, even if they are only successful with a portion of it, they realize the importance of learning the information presented on a much deeper level. They see the interconnections between what we are doing in class and what they want to do for a career down the road. And, they commonly make a conscious effort to overcome their deficiencies so they continue to grow, even if they know doing so will not effect their grade. And, because they have or develop a passion for what they are learning in my classes, they tend to enjoy the work we do more than those who are only focused on the grade.
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.
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.