Sunday, January 8, 2012

Anticipating tomorrow

This Spring semester, I am a fellow with the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. Yesterday I made public a blog that my students and I will use to write about the experience, and my post there explains the context. In a draft of that post, I had two paragraphs about how I got here, but this topic seemed more appropriate for this blog. The VBC blog is for the project; this one is for me to reflect. So, without further ado, here's a reflection of how I got to this point as a Computer Science professor at Ball State.

My first Summer here, I led a graduate seminar on game engine programming. I have always been one to tinker with game development ideas, though at that point, I had not finished and published any game-related projects. I was and am still interested in object-oriented design, especially design patterns, and so I used the Summer to investigate the relationship between classic software design patterns and game development. Looking back, this was my first experience with pure project-based learning, although I would not have known to call it social constructivism at the time; my intuition told me that if I got a bunch of interested grad students together for a few weeks with an interesting topic, we would all learn something. And we did. In fact, it was this Summer that I developed the essential components of EEClone, my case study for design patterns in games.

I continued this line of inquiry with a group of undergraduates and my colleague, Fu-Shing Sun. Each of the students developed their own game based on the design patterns that I introduced. I am still proud of the systems that these students created. Although the game designs were primitive, the software architectures were beautiful. Of course, software architecture was the focus of the course, so this is to be expected.

The Honors College was supportive of our desire to investigate multidisciplinary game design and development.  For two semesters, Fu-Shing and I team-taught a pair of courses, one on game design and one on game programming. The first semester, we were assisted by graduate student Ben Dean, and so we were able to create three small multidisciplinary teams, each mentored by one of us. The three games created out of this experiment were quite good, capable of being polished and released although none of the students were interested in continuing with them past the end of the semester. The other semester of this experiment, we created one larger team working in two parallel units: design and programming. This allowed us to focus each unit's attention on mastering their side, but the results were predictable in retrospect. Because the groups were working separately, there were several communication problems, and no amount of content expertise can overcome the challenges of bad communication patterns. It was a good learning experience for all involved, but the quality of the end result did not scale up with the number of people on the team.

These two semesters provided me with a great experience, and we took the opportunity to write a few papers about our experiences. My future direction for this line of inquiry was unclear, but I knew I wanted to be more involved in both the design and development sides of the class. It was around this time that I met History Professor Ronald Morris, who convinced me that there were ample opportunities in history education game development for elementary school students. This led to the Morgan's Raid project, which I have blogged about extensively; the postmortem is a good starting place if you're new here. As I've mentioned before, the Spring semester of Morgan's Raid—during which I led a team of ten students in a studio learning experience of finishing the game design and development—was the most rewarding activity of my professional career.

That's my reflective summary of how I got here.  Many semesters, proposals, and research papers later, I feel as ready as I can be to mentor my team this Spring. I feel like all of these previous experiences have led me to the VBC, a dramatic next step for my teaching and my scholarship. My mild nervousness about an untested team is tempered by the fact that I know half of them quite well, and the rest have shown themselves to be bright, polite, and motivated students. I have planned a workshop on games, fun, and learning for the first week of the semester, and I am eager to see how the team engages with the readings, discussions, and activities. On Tuesday, we meet with our community partner, the Indianapolis Children's Museum, to sort out the details of the project with respect to schedules, expectations, and capabilities. This will help direct the discussions through the rest of the week, and after that, I switch from teacher to coach, handing the reins to the team of students.

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