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2010 News Releases

69 high school students learn video game design in Longwood project

July 23, 2010

Digispired ii Summer Academy at Longwood Dr. Ehsan Sheybani, instructor in the recent Digispired ii Summer Academy at Longwood, works with Tevin Logan, while fellow students Chy Dixon (foreground) and Brett Hall and Essence Wiley work on projects. Essence is speaking with Dr. Manorama Talaiver, principal investigator for Digispired.

Some 69 high school students recently learned video game design in a two-week, National Science Foundation-funded project coordinated by Longwood University's Institute for Teaching Through Technology and Innovative Practice (ITTIP).

Digispired ii Summer Academy, part of the Digispired ii: Workforce Investigation Inspiration for STEM project, was held July 12-23 at Longwood, Virginia State University (VSU), and the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston. This is the first year of the three-year project which continues an earlier effort that also was called Digispired, was funded by an NSF grant, and lasted three years. The Digispired project, which consists of a two-week summer program and activities throughout the school year, seeks to interest students in careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).

"This grant is not just about game design; it's about motivating these students to explore and understand STEM-related fields and careers," said Dr. Manorama Talaiver, ITTIP director and the principal investigator of Digspired. "I want all of them to go into a STEM field. That's our goal."

All of the participants in the summer academy are rising high school sophomores. Some 21 students attended the Longwood location, which was taught by Dr. Ehsan Sheybani, associate professor in VSU's Department of Computer Engineering. The students came from schools in Appomattox, Buckingham, Charlotte, Chesterfield, Cumberland, Powhatan and Prince Edward counties, and three are from home and private schools.

The VSU portion of the academy was taught by Dr. Giti Javidi, associate professor in VSU's Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, and drew 25 students from Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Hanover counties and Hopewell, Richmond and Petersburg. The South Boston location, taught by Dr. Seung Yang, an independent consultant and former VSU professor, attracted 23 students from Charlotte, Halifax and Mecklenburg counties. Sheybani, Javidi and Yang are co-principal investigators in the project, in which they have been involved since the first year.

In addition, each location has a teacher-facilitator and university student assistant to assist the co-principal investigators. ITTIP staff members Barbara Scott, Susan Throckmorton, Joyce Francis, Rebecca Bowen, and Bill Wilson assist with the day-to-day management of the project.

Students at all three locations used a PicoBoard - a small yellow circuit board formerly called a ScratchBoard - to interact with the games. Students created the games with the open-source application Scratch, developed by MIT. One day, they went on a field trip in which they visited engineering labs - RAM Jet lab, Microelectrical systems lab, low speed wind tunnel lab, medical imaging, diagnosis and analysis lab, biomedical lab, and gaming lab - in Old Dominion University's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology and met with the assistant dean, Dr. Linda Vahala. At the Longwood location, the university's new president, Patrick Finnegan, dropped in one day and chatted with the students and viewed several student presentations, then had lunch with them in Dorrill Dining Hall.

In October the Digispired students will interact with professional game design experts, meet with graduate engineering students who will provide hands-on instruction on sensors in game controllers, and visit the Science Museum of Virginia. Next spring and summer, they will learn a programming language called C#, which is necessary to create advanced games.

"We will provide Unity, a commercial game development tool, at all three locations," Talaiver said. "In the third year, the students will use Unity software to create the games."

Half of this summer's participants also participated in the first Digispired project, which began in June 2007 when they were rising seventh graders. Some 75 students completed the first Digispired effort, held at middle schools in Halifax and Prince Edward counties and Hopewell, which drew students from six counties. Students during the first three years participated in activities on four Saturdays every fall and four-to-five Saturdays every spring in addition to the summer academies.

"The program includes ethnic minorities, females, and students from low-income families," said Talaiver.

Digispired ii is funded by a $1,049,777 NSF grant, announced in January 2010. The first Digispired grant was for $891,000.

The ITTIP, headquartered in South Boston, is an outreach of Longwood that researches and develops effective technology-related instructional strategies and models. It serves primarily 25 public school divisions extending from Patrick County eastward to Franklin and as far north as Buckingham County. It works closely with, and is the fiscal and administrative agent for, the Southside Virginia Regional Technology Consortium.