This past week, I attended the NCTEDE Annual Conference in Winston-Salem, NC. While there, I had the opportunity to both learn from other Technical Education teachers as well as present the work of my CTE Advanced Studies students. I am going to review some of what I experienced while there.
I will begin with my presentation, since it was in the first time-slot of the day and probably what most of my readers are most interested in anyway. Although I could have taken on many different directions with my presentation (talk about VR in the classroom, discuss group projects, discuss many of the problems and solutions we have come up with, etc.), I chose to discuss how a project like ours can be a good replacement for the traditional internship. How, might you ask, is this possible? Well...for years, our school has not had a Career Development Coordinator (CDC) assigned to it. This individual is the go-between for both CTE teachers and their central office as well as those teachers and the community, including finding internships. Because we have lacked this role at our school, we have had a difficult time finding internship for our seniors. This problem is escalated when you consider that most companies in the game industry have strict confidentiality concerns with bringing interns from what is often their target market through their doors. This is where the Prison Flip Project takes over for my seniors. Throughout this project, the students are working closely with two distinct groups of professionals, which allows me to consider this project more like an internship that an Advanced Studies class.
The first group is Lucid Dream VR. Lucid Dream has been our mentors throughout the process. They have assisted us as consultants and guides throughout the process, much like an internship's supervisor would do for the students. When the students have experienced problems, the members of Lucid Dream have provided instruction and assistance. They have been the individuals who have truly made our ability to do anything with virtual reality possible!
The second group is Growing Change. Growing Change has been a real-world client for the students' project. They are the reason that we are creating the VR walkthrough and they will benefit from the class' work the most. So, without them, we wouldn't have the opportunity to have our "simulated internships" environment either. So, by thinking outside the box of what is normally considered to be an internship, I am providing my advanced students with the opportunity to get all the benefits of an internship without leaving the classroom setting.
Another item from the conference that i want to touch on involves teaching 3D modeling techniques. Working with 3D has never been one of my stronger skills but after lots of practice and research, I found ways that worked for me without using (many) of the state's outdated video tutorials. But, at the conference, I attended a session on teaching students to complete the 3D modeling unit in Scientific Visualization. This talk sparked an idea that I used just this morning with my students. Normally, I lecture using the state's PowerPoint, then I might walk them through the interface and let them attack a number of video tutorials. No more!
While I am giving the class the lecture material for use when studying for quizzes and tests, I am not lecturing it. They are intelligent and can read as well as I can read it to them with minimal added commentary, as that is all that is really needed. Instead, we dove straight into 3ds Max. I started by showing them a few of the items in the interface that they will need to get familiar with and where things are located. During the training, the speaker demonstrated making a dog. I decided to change things up a little by telling the kids: Today, you are making an elephant! We didn't cover every tool or technique they need, but it did give them a glimpse into how one can quickly and easily model change a simple primitive, like a cube, into a complex object. Over time, the modeling and relating techniques will get more involved but for now, this simply set of instructions appear to have really motivated the students about 3D modeling!
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!
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 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.