Saturday, April 12, 2008


It's spring and that means the school year is shifting. Accepted student days. End of projects. Finals. Awards events. Soon graduation. Much of this season is about illuminating the talent of the students and what they have achieved. They continue to amaze me.

Last night, the "IBM" student team and EMC staff traveled to Underhill, for a final post-mortem on the IBM project (see project below in the link on the right) and a Vermont styled evening. John Cohn and his generous wife Diane welcomed us into their refurbished one-room schoolhouse home. We discussed what went right, what went wrong and what we wished we could do with the project. Apparent was that we each grew through the experience. In turn that learning is influencing our upcoming projects. However and more importantly a web of community grew beyond the campus causing strong relationships and respect. John impacted our lives and the students equally impacted his.

After deconstructing the project, the students got a tour that included the old bell tower looking out over the hilly countryside. John rang the bell and one could imagine the generations of students called to class in that building. Diane cooked a delicious dinner to feed our troops—home cooking being a luxury to college students. It felt as if our Champlain students were getting a real down to earth Vermont "thank you".  John even gave us a home-brewed physics/chemistry lesson lighting up the yard of that old schoolhouse with
some of his mad scientist chemistry magic. Resembling Thor the god of thunder & lightening, he concocted plasma gas in the microwave, created gigantic sparklers, and became a fire-breathing engineer. Mike Fowler remarked that he wished his high school science teachers had been so dynamic. Then in a magnificent finale worthy of the Fourth of July, John created a huge heart stopping BLAST!!!! To get a sense of the evening and the consequences, please read John's April 11th & 12th blogs

Tonight was a quieter, though no less impactful student-focused celebration. It was the Communication & Creative Media Division Awards Night. The first students up to the podium were Wes Knee, Emily Benton, Ben LaPointe and Lauren Nishikawa receiving the Team Excellence Award from Prof. Eric Ronis. Nominated for their work at Elliott Masie's Learning 2007, the students had to go yet another step and create solutions for the Student Government Association. What I've observed is that this group is actively spreading what they've mastered —the value of and successful skills needed for teamwork—to other students.

For the last award of the evening, the Emergent Media Center presented its first award; the EMC Interstellar Award to Lauren. What she has given the EMC is quite a gift. She has set the bar for what it means to work with the EMC. Lauren is a student who is equally talented as a game designer, Flash scriptor and an artist. She brings creativity, professionalism and level-headedness to everything she does. Appropriately the plaque we gave her was created in equal parts by ourselves, Wes, John Cohn and even Paul Ledak. Paul is IBM's VP of Emerging Business Opportunity in Digital Convergence. Here's an interesting interview with Paul on 3D internet and digital convergence. Paul cut the design in wood for Lauren's plaque using a laser cutter—a VP of Digital Convergence crafting the first Emergent Media Center award for Lauren. It's rather like passing the torch of the future. Now how cool is that?

Lastly I want to share a story about the Outstanding Artist Award given by Prof. Geebo Church. Geebo is a man I deeply admire. He is an artist in the pure sense. Geebo tonight talked about the role of the artist. To be an artist inspires one's whole existence—it is indeed a calling. Simply stated, the artist's role is to illuminate what others may or may not see. They shine a light and provide questions and context. When I look at my life and why I love my work, it is because our students are both the candle and its flame. A teacher's job is to provide the fuel, the students' is to illuminate the future. The student artist who received the award is Game Art & Animation senior Nick Malutama. Nick is originally from Africa. When you view his piece; first created for a history class, now with almost 42,000 hits on Youtube, I believe you will understand why I advocate so strongly for our students' voices.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Down to the Wired

My class is down to the wire in Game Production I. Seems like yesterday the local paper, Seven Days, wrote about our second class.  It is amazing how quickly a semester flies by! Equally amazing is how deep the learning is for the students and myself. 
The goal of the class is to conceptualize and build a game in 14 weeks. The students (artists, designers, programmers) learn how to construct a game, about the creation process, about roles needed, and how to follow a production method. They apply technologies and skills they have learned in other classes thus building those skills further. It is about games, engineering, art, animation and creativity.

Yet if one was to cut to the core of this class and dig out the seeds, it is about team work. It teaches the skills needed to work and live successfully in today's world. And learning to work together is a vital concern for our global future. As Dr. R. K. Pachauri writes in Greenhouse Gases: The Developed World's Role (Time, Mar. 24, 2008):
"There is need, therefore, for enlightened minds from north and south getting together to define the sustainability imperative and persuade political leaders of the benefits of growth with lower natural resource intensity in all countries — developed and developing."
It is the nature of the team that if it can not organize itself efficiently, if ego takes the place of commitment to the goal, the project fails and so does the individual. Surprisingly consensus does not equal success, in much the same manner as passive aggressiveness does not equal peace.

For these reasons it is a very difficult class. A student's grade is not dependent solely on his/her individual effort. It relies on how they can work together towards a common goal. All this I knew having constructed, taught and guided many courses employing team projects. Yet this class has been different from the formers because the entire semester is devoted to one project. Team skills can not be slowly built on a starter project and then reapplied to another in one course. Likewise for the students to learn, I as the instructor must let go of the reins enough so that they can master teamwork and achievement. No lectures here, instead direction as to process and resources, tuning in, analysis, guidance and response. So this semester, my students taught me a deep message through their experience. It is this: willingness to be on a team and individual effort can not succeed without a solid leader enabling team success. The key being enabling

At the start of the semester, the class had four projects in process—each with strong concepts. On each team are members of varying capability, no one team stronger than the other. Yet by midterm, one team had fallen completely apart. A member even quitting the class and leaving the team hanging with no deliverable project! It was not from lack of talent or idea. It was because they did not have an organization or structure in place to guide them through the rough spots. The team leader aka "producer" lacked the experience needed to pull together a resourceful team when crisis hit. He did not have time to build honest dialogue and commitment from the individuals. This team was reassigned. Despite this painful outcome, each member now flourishes on new teams.

Crisis struck two weeks later with a team that looked to be one of the best. It was not for lack of talent—in fact it may be due to it. Strong talents and stronger personalities compose this team. In this case the gregarious and well-liked producer was unable to give hard, meaningful criticism. The strong individual preferences and prejudices could not be balanced towards the goal. When offered the choice to bring in new members to get them to goal, this team elected not to.  This became the downfall. The good news is that after two weeks of struggle, this team has managed to pull themselves together. They were given an ultimatum and encouragement. Roles have been reassigned. They are committed. It looks promising.

You may wonder about the two successful teams. In both cases, I tip my hat to the producers. Both were also relatively new to the game. What they possess is the ability to listen, understand and evaluate their team's personalities, motivations and skills. They balance and moderate the teams. They are strong at organizing, setting goals, giving feedback, being transparent and accountable. Each is surprisingly soft spoken, yet determined to succeed with a resilient belief in each member of their teams. The respect is returned.

During the course of this class I discovered a book through the Center's project manager, Ray McCarthy-Bergeron. He pointed me to "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" by Patrick Lencioni. The students read it three weeks ago, within the chaos, and recommend that it be included early in my next course, but not so early that it has no relevance yet. This I will do and we will require it of the Center's project teams. It gives a basic conceptual framework to understand team dynamics.

The class delivered their "Alpha" or near-to-final game tonight. In two weeks final projects are due, pizza is promised. The games are looking strong. Though there is a lot of work to be done, I believe they will all make it. They've learned the lessons necessary to succeed. You can be sure when they do I will post links. 

Two other quick notes on learning and technology, check out the recent SITE blog by Bonnie Bracey Sutton entitled "Toward Digital Inclusion of All Students in a Flat World". She ponders deep questions and suggest sources for answers. In it she refers to a new web site developed for Scholastic and the National Governor's Association on Innovation America (image above) . I got hooked on the game section.

Also check out Clint Hocking's blog from February26, 2008 on GDC. He responds to a question I posted on the meaning of the potential power of games to influence by responding:
"What does it mean that they do have that power? Well - I suppose that today it means that we have a responsibility to ensure we develop an industry that wields that power responsibly."
All interesting stuff when we are talking about learning and media. I know I'm learning a lot—much from this generation and the media they consume and create.