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Games Development Institute helps high school tech teachers
Building Games and Careers

As the Internet bust recedes into history, the future of tech-related fields seems bright once again. But will Texas' next generation be ready for these opportunities?

One attempt to ensure that they are is the Games Development Institute (GDI), a joint project of the University of Texas at Austin's IC2 Institute and the Capital Area Training Foundation (CATF), an Austin-based work force development organization.

The Games Development Institute is an annual workshop that introduces Austin-area high school computer science and digital media teachers to the basics of building games software, so they can bring hands-on experience back to the classroom. Now in its second year, the most recent workshop trained 18 computer science and media teachers from 10 Austin-area high schools for a week in June.

New blood needed
Declining enrollment in computer-related fields spurred the creation of GDI. The Computing Research Association, for instance, has noted that enrollment in the University of Texas (UT) at Austin's computer sciences department fell by a quarter between 2002 and 2003.

"The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in the next 10 years software engineering will be one of the top 10 fastest-growing jobs--but right now, kids are fleeing from computer science as a college degree," said CATF's David Nunez. "They're worrying about the job market. But it's all cyclical, and it's going to come back. And when it does, if we don't have kids trained for the field, we'll be in big trouble."

And games are a good way to introduce students to computer science and related fields, said Emmet Campos of IC2.

"We're trying to take advantage of the attraction games have for teens and use that as a hook to get them interested in the development process, and the software industry as a whole," Campos said.

Nuts, bolts, code
GDI is an intensive week devoted to the complex process of game development, ranging from the creation of computer code to graphics and music.

"It's similar to the film industry--it involves art and music as well as technical pursuits," said Campos.

The workshop concentrated on games for hand-held devices such as cell phones and personal data assistants, because the development process is shorter and less costly than that for console and computer games, Campos noted.

The 2004 GDI sessions were held at IC2's facilities and Texas State University in San Marcos, and at the Fizz Factor Game Studio and NCSoft, two area game companies. Instructors included games professionals as well as faculty from UT-Austin and Austin Community College. The workshops emphasized the collaboration among different specialties needed to produce a modern game--something Travis High School teacher Walter Lenoir found fascinating.

"I participated in GDI last year, and this year was even better," said Lenoir. "I've used it to build some fundamental game theory and game design into my computer programming course. But even more important, watching the way games are developed in teams in industry is leading me to a more team-oriented teaching methodology, to put a greater emphasis on team activity. Teamwork is an important part of the process and an important skill that my students can develop."

Participating teachers who complete a lesson plan based on what they learn in GDI can earn professional development credit from their districts and receive a $500 stipend.

The payoff for sponsoring companies is just as important, said Darrell Woelk, director of Advanced Software Technology Applications at Telcordia Technologies.

"From my point of view, it's about how we can get good people coming out of the high schools and colleges who will become good employees," he said. "Part of our motivation was to increase what Austin had to offer, so we can grow companies in the area."

Bruce Wright