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  • Composing an Interdisciplinary Learning Environment

    [08.15.06]
    - Warren K. Wake and Magy Seif El-Nasr
  •  Introduction

    Learning how to build a video game is a dream for many high-school and college students. Imagine you are in a class where your main objective is to design and develop your own game, whether it is an interactive space of your favorite painting, an adventure game with your favorite movie character, e.g. Jack Sparrow, or a game about you. The possibilities are endless.

    Many students come into our game classes thinking it is going to be easy; after all, they have played games all their lives. But what many of them don’t know is that building a video game is hard. Building games require creative input from many disciplines, such as interaction design, scenic design, narrative and dialog composition, character modeling and animation, artistic direction, event programming, and game rule programming. Just by looking at the credits for each video game, you can see that producing a good quality game involves assembling teams of people with a broad range of skills.

    It is quite obvious then that teaching game design and development requires a different approach than the single-discipline classroom that is the norm in a discipline like computer science. Ideally, course instructors of the class will come from different disciplines and be aware of the other disciplines involved in game production. Within the classroom, interdisciplinary teams of students will need to be composed. Students in an interdisciplinary classroom need to be open-minded, respect each others’ skills, and understand that they are dependant upon different disciplines and skills to create a successful game. Moreover, the learning environment needs to accommodate this interdisciplinary style.

    In this article, we discuss an effort we started at Penn State University between the College of Information Sciences and Technology and the College of Art and Architecture. We have developed two game-development courses assembling a variety of learning methods, including activities, field trips, assignments, projects, lectures, guest lectures, and a studio-based environment. To allow for interdisciplinary teams, students majoring in technical (Computer Science or Information Sciences and Technology) or art (Integrative Arts) majors were allowed to register for the class.

    We believe the amalgam of different learning methods, content from different disciplines, and the class composition have made this class successful. The students’ comments indicated that team teaching was an excellent method of disseminating different disciplinary perspectives within one class. They also indicated that going on the field trip to the opera was very helpful because it materialized many of the art concepts we discussed in class, such as lighting, costumes, and set design. Students also noted that they enjoyed the class and the hands-on approach we took. They said they learned a lot through constantly revising their projects incorporating the critiques and feedback they received from us and other students.

    In teaching these classes, however, we encountered some unforeseen problems. For example, technical students rebelled against the studio-based style of teaching. In addition, they did not understand how to use critiques or how to critique each other’s work. Technical students also did not see the point of concentrating on some artistic aspects within the course; they often criticized the art-based lectures and critiques as unnecessary and could be removed from the course. Art students, in contrast, were comfortable with arts-course methods, but were largely overwhelmed with the programming and technical complexity involved in game design. Also, because of their different academic cultures, the art and technical students sometimes had difficulty communicating.

    In this article, we will discuss our teaching method, the problems we faced, and the solutions we tried. We begin with the class structure and composition.

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