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Clara: Creativity drives 3D animated dreams of design and innovation

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Clara with instructor Andrew Smith
Joy Walczak
Clara with instructor Andrew Smith

When Clara stepped into the 3D Animation & Game Design program at Kent Career Tech Center, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Now in her second year, she has her sights on a career in this area where she can express herself artistically while mastering high-end technology used in a growing economic sector.

Joy Walczak (JW): Welcome to the Your Dream Is Our Dream podcast, where we celebrate student success one dream at a time. This program is made possible by Kent ISD in partnership with WGVU. I'm Joy Walczak, and I have with me today Clara, a 12th grade student from Forest Hill Central High, and a second year student in Kent Career Tech Center's 3D Animation and Game Design program. It's taught by Andrew Smith, who's also here with us. Thanks so much to both of you for joining me today.

Andrew Smith (AS): Thank you for having us.

Clara (C): Thank you.

JW: It's great to be here with both of you. And we had a chance to see your class in action a little earlier this week. And Clara, I just have to say, I was so impressed with all of the work you've been doing in this program and your artistic abilities. We're going to get to that in just a minute. First, Mr. Smith, if you wouldn't mind telling us a little bit about this program and what it is you teach in this program.

AS: Sure, so the official title of our program is the Digital Animation and Game Programming Program. I am the 3D teacher in this program and I teach all of the 3D art and 2D art.

Basically what we do is we create all the content that these young developers will go through and make interactable in the other classroom, Mr. Petz's classroom. So I co-teach this and students that come into our program, they will spend one semester with me doing all the 3D art and then they'll spend the second semester in Mr. Petz's classroom learning to make these things interactive and bring them to life.

JW: That's wonderful. And that really brings us to Clara. You have really impressed not only Mr. Smith, but your classmates and you have a wonderful group that you work with here. And also, we would just love to know, what was it about this class when you first learned about it that made you want to take part?

C: Well, I actually didn't know there was anything like this in Michigan in general, like for high school students, but I started watching League of Legends cinematics and I thought that was so cool. And I was like, how did they make this stuff? And then I learned about KCTC and I was just like, have a program that's like kind of like that. And then they did and I was super excited. And so I kept on my counselor like, can you enroll me first? So I get placement in here. Can you enroll me first thing right away? And she did and I got in and I'm very happy that I did.

JW: That's terrific. What kinds of things have you been learning in this program that really were brand new to you? I know you have artistic abilities, but it went even further than that.

C: Yeah, so I actually, I didn’t really dabble in art much before this, I kind of sketched sometimes, but when I got to this program it was a lot of new, you know, programs pretty much. So like Blender and Photoshop and 3DS Max and all that stuff. I had no idea what it was and then I learned about it when I came here and it's like I know so much about all these things now, so it's really cool.

JW: It also seemed to really ignite a passion in you. Can you talk about that a little bit?


C: Yeah, so I didn't even know if I was going to want to do stuff like this at all when I came into the program, but after Mr. Smith taught me what he did to get to where he is now, I've I kind of wanted to go through a similar journey and I thought that would be really cool. So that's kind of my goal now.

JW: So Mr. Smith, why don't you tell us a little bit about that journey? One unique thing about Kent Career Tech Center is we have real professionals who have experience in their own fields in front of our classroom, teaching the people who will be in those fields tomorrow. You're one of those people.

AS: Correct, yeah. So I grew up in a family of teachers. My parents were in Kentwood Public Schools for a long time. And I grew up on the football fields at East Kentwood. In the summertime with my dad, we didn’t have babysitters, and you know, I wish that something like this had existed back when I was younger because I was very much into animation and video games, but I was also very active in sports so I most of my free time was spent just being active outside. And so my senior year of high school came around and my dad found out about this brand new program that Ferris State offered and it was the digital animation and game design program bachelor degree and I went to one meeting about it and I knew this is what I wanted to do. We explored some other universities but Ferris' price and the location, I just couldn't pass on it. So we were kind of the first group, me and Mr. Petz, the other teacher in our program, we were part of the first group that went through that bachelor program and it took me about five years to get through the program and through that process I created a very significant group of peers, so friends that I got to know and we all had common goals and interests which is what really helped propel me through college. It was a very difficult sea to navigate with all that newfound freedom and living at home and commuting. It was very different than the typical college experience. Now that program is on Ferris' main campus and you know students can go and study right on campus which is great. But it was a long five years and through that process I got to volunteer at the game developer conference and made connections there and that’s what led to me getting my first job in the industry. I got a job at the University of Southern California, the Institute for Creative Technologies right on the Marina Del Rey, right on the ocean there. You know, I lived on the PCH, worked on the PCH, rode a bike to work. It was a pretty great experience but we got to interact with the military a lot and so we developed video games for the military.

JW: Your experience is really valuable to our students here, including students like Clara and a group of students that you have become close with in your program. Can you talk about how the connections you're making with students from other high schools is actually empowering you through this program?

C: Yeah, so I actually didn't think I would make many friends when I came into this program. I'm not sure why I thought that, but when I came in, it was like immediately I felt like energetic and that I wanted to talk to people and there was everybody's so sweet, everybody's so nice and it's a lot like college where you know people have similar interests so it's easy to talk to them and it's just like really fun to make friends in the class that you're with all the time. You’re in the same classroom every single day so might as well make friends and it's super easy to do, so it's very, very nice and I made a very, very, very great group of friends this year and last year.

JW: What I noticed about the friendships that you've created is that it also really sparked your creativity and production together, you have used each other's talents to learn from one another. Isn't that true?

C: Yes. So, I I'm not a great 2d artist but all of my peers are and I learned a lot from them within the past two years just watching them. They didn't even have to really teach me anything, but just being around them and watching them inspired me to want to do things at home, which I'd never really wanted to do before. But I was like, maybe I should practice drawing, you know? So that's kind of how they influenced me in that way.

JW: I also hear that this is something you may want to take beyond high school. Can you talk about that and what your future dreams might be?

C: So, I want to become an animator for the movie industry. That's kind of my main goal. I also wouldn't mind being a character artist, but I still don't know, you know. This, I think, is what this program is for, is to kind of narrow down to what you want to do in college and beyond that.

JW: And I understand you're actually able to earn some college credits through this program.

C: Yeah, so I am dual enrolled at Ferris right now, so that’s pretty cool. So, I’m not sure.. you get two credits, is that right? For the animation that we do here.

JW: Terrific. Mr. Smith, why don't you pick it up from there and just tell me about how the students are getting actual college credit and not only that but career readiness so that they can achieve their dreams.

AS: Sure, yeah. So here at KCTC we do offer dual enrollment options for all of our students, we highly encourage them. We have Ferris staff comes down and helps walk us through and explains to the students what this dual enrollment thing is, how to set it up, and what to expect moving forward in the future. But we also have credits that will just articulate over so if students don't want to do a dual enroll for various reasons, they still can access those credits if they choose to go to Ferris later on. So that's just a great, great opportunity.

JW: When you hear Clara talk about the excitement that she has built from not knowing very much about this industry to now being pretty excited about it. How does it make you feel and how does it actually influence the way you teach a program like this?

AS: Sure, it's very inspiring because I can relate very closely with Clara and her group of second year students that we've brought back. You know, when I was at Ferris, I was a senior, one of the first people in that program to graduate. And there was a freshman in the classroom, Randy Nolta, and he was a freshman and I was on my way out into industry. And I said hi, I was nice, and we had some common interests, but we maybe only met once. And two years later, I was working for USC. Our boss needed an environment artist, and so I put a post out on Facebook, this was a long time ago, like 2009. And Randy applied. He ended up getting the job and joining our team, and so I built a team up at USC of just strictly Ferris students. Fast forward maybe six years, he started a game studio with some industry veterans called Impulse Gear and Sony gave them a big project called Farpoint so we got to work and develop the game Farpoint for the PlayStation 4 VR and it was just a really amazing experience so I've I kind of see a little bit of that culture being built by these guys right now and it makes me really excited because I know that they have a bright future and it's going to be an exciting industry and it's changing just as much now as it did when I was in high school, 18 years ago or whatever it is. So I'm excited and that's what inspires me. And this year we started doing role-playing during the course so we're kind of getting a lot of inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons and so we treat the course like a D&D campaign where we move around our map and it's just like game development. It's always a work in progress.

JW: This definitely is a work in progress. Clara, why do you think it's important for us to find out, as educators, what our students are dreaming about? Why is it important for us to ask what you're dreaming about and try to make those dreams come true with you?

C: Well, I mean, it's kind of the job of a teacher to, you know, help students, to connect with students first of all, and second of all to help them, you know, achieve what they want to do in the future even if, you know, it's not something that, like if you were in a normal high school, if a teacher, if you want to go into science, if you want to go into sciences but you're still with your English teacher, you could still like connect with that teacher and they can still help you with what you need help with and it's just good. Teachers are there for helping and Mr. Smith does a great job of helping with kind of anything anybody needs ever. So, it's great.

JW: How would you think you'll know when you've actually made your dreams come true?

C: So a lot of people say, like art, oh, this is so cliche, but a lot of people say like art is never finished, just abandoned. I don't think I'll ever like really hit like my dream. You know, I think it'll forever be like the next best thing, you know? So I think that's what I'll end up, and I'm totally cool with that, I think that's great. But I don't know if I'll ever like perfectly hit on the dot like what my dream is. I think it's just going to be very, I'm going to keep doing all these different things and kind of flow.

JW: Like the artistic endeavor that you're both part of, it's a changing process, as you mentioned, with 3D animation and game design. It's always evolving. I'd like to thank both of you for joining us today and also for dreaming big. It's been a real pleasure.

C: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

AS: Thank you for having us.

JW: And thanks so much to everyone who's listening, too. If you know of a student who dreams big, we would love to share their story. You can share your ideas and hear more dream stories at KentISD.org/yourdream. The Your Dream Is Our Dream podcast is presented by Kent ISD in partnership with WGVU.

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