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Game Design Program Ranks 47th in World

At a time of “great growth” in the game industry in Kentucky and beyond, Eastern Kentucky University’s game design program ranks 47th internationally, according to The Princeton Review.

The Princeton Review (www.PrincetonReview.com) determined its rankings based on a survey it conducted in 2016 of 150 institutions offering game design coursework and/or degrees in the United States, Canada, and some other countries.

The company's 40-question survey asked schools to report on everything from their academic offerings and lab facilities to their graduates’ starting salaries and career achievements. Among criteria The Princeton Review weighed to make its selections: each school's academics, facilities, career services, and technology.

“Many schools put ‘game’ in a course title, and these courses typically become popular with strong enrollment,” said Dr. George Landon, director of the EKU Gaming Institute (gaming.eku.edu). “However, the Princeton Review recognizes that a few game courses are not enough to prepare students for the game industry and can even mislead prospective students. The top-50 label demonstrates that we are consistently providing our students a world-class education in game development.”

Landon said he believed the program’s “close ties” with the game industry within and beyond Kentucky played a part in the high ranking. “We have also added new faculty. Jonathan Hale, an adjunct instructor, has extensive expertise in 2D and 3D game art and animation.”

EKU, which ranked 50th on the list a year ago, boasts one of the newer programs on the list. The Gaming Institute was established in 2014, whereas many of the game design programs on the top-50 list have been established for 10-20 years.

Home to the Commonwealth’s first bachelor’s degree program in game design, EKU hosted the Commonwealth’s first-ever game design conference last year. The Institute partnered with the Richmond office of the Kentucky Innovation Network, RunJumpDev of Lexington and Tech Base 10 to present Vector, a celebration of developers from the Midwest and southeastern U.S. and an opportunity for them to network with leaders and peers in the field of game design and development.

Another Vector conference – and this year it’s an Idea Festival event, as well – is scheduled for April 21-22 on the Richmond campus.

“This 2-day event will more than double the activities from last year,” Landon said. “We'll have the student showcase again this year as well as talks from Ubisoft, Bungie, Google, Devolver Digital and more. We will also have a $500 game idea pitch contest, sponsored by California-based publisher Black Shell Media, and we will be offering the Unity Certification Exam (an industry certification offered for the first time in our region). Also, on Friday night, we will have a concert from the Minecraft composer, C418, and Saturday afternoon, we will be screening ‘Lost Arcade’ and have a talk from its director, Kurt Vincent.

“Events like the Vector conference are helping establish us as a premier site for game-related education.”

In 2015, Eastern added a cutting-edge motion capture studio to its facilities in the Wallace Building. With the addition of the studio, the University now employs the same technology that Hollywood and game studios use to capture actor performance in movies and games.

“Game design is an exciting field, and programs are springing up in colleges all over the world,” said Robert Franek, editor in chief for the Princeton Review. “We want to help students find the best program for their needs and interests. The top schools on our list have outstanding faculties and great facilities, which will give students the skills and experience they need to pursue in this dynamic and burgeoning field.”

As a young program, EKU can’t yet count many alumni. But that will soon change, with 137 Interactive Media majors today, a number that continues to grow and include more out-of-state students.

“There is great growth in the game industry, and Kentucky is experiencing this first hand,” Landon said. “EKU has been fortunate to be at the center of this. The job market is very strong. I am not aware of any of our graduates who are actively seeking employment who are unable to find good, high-paying jobs. Game-related jobs in Kentucky are steadily increasing, as many small independent studios are forming across the state.

“I receive multiple e-mails and phone calls every week from high schools, parents and students asking about EKU’s game program,” Landon added. “Outside of Kentucky, we are the ‘Kentucky game school,’ and it’s our work outside the classroom that has helped get the word out.”

Eastern has sent a total of 10 students to the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, California, the past three years, and Vector has introduced the University to game developers from Illinois to Virginia.

The Interactive Multimedia option within the baccalaureate degree in computer science at EKU develops students’ expertise in game design, 3-D modeling and animation, graphics programming, and multimedia systems. The Gaming Institute focuses on the design, development, and publication of video games within an academic context. Beginning this fall, the program will offer a new minor in game content design that is specifically targeted at students interested in developing content for games, but may not be interested in writing code and programming them.

Graduates of the program receive a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a concentration in interactive media. “The requirements for this degree help make them very well rounded in technical areas. At this point, most of our graduates obtain jobs as software engineers and programmers. Other students extend their experience by adding minors and free electives to become better artists, and some of these students added freelance game art as a career supplement.”

For the fifth consecutive year, The Princeton Review teamed up with PC Gamer (www.pcgamer.com), a monthly magazine published by Future plc as its reporting partner on the project. PC Gamer features the list in its May issue, available on newsstands March 28.

The Princeton Review developed its “Top Schools to Study Game Design” project in 2009 with assistance from a national advisory board that helped design the survey instrument and methodology. Board members included administrators and faculty from respected game design programs, as well as professionals from some of the top gaming companies.   

Congratulations to our students Simon Mikulcik, Wes Gilleland, Christopher Causey, and their faculty advisor Dr. Styer for placing fifth in the 2014 Mid-Central USA Programming Contest!  They also ranked 42nd out of 146 teams for the entire Mid-Central USA Region--we are proud of you!

EKU Computer Science Game Fest 2013

It was around this time last year I began to fret a little. The novelty of the summer holidays had started to wear off and the fear began to settle in. After a couple of years of teaching ICT, I was getting a little bored of churning out coursework and was looking for a new challenge that would really make my students think. Don't get me wrong, ICT has its place but I felt like students were missing out by not getting a mix of computer science and ICT. So I came up with a plan to start delivering computing from September 2012.

Having previously studied internet technology at university, taught ICT for almost four years and being a bit of a geek, I felt quite secure in my subject knowledge for computing but was not feeling confident with my programming skills.

The first thing thing I did was sign up to Codeacademy – a site where users can learn and teach code for free – and began working through the Python exercises. I chose Python as my coding language of choice because it is quite close to written English and there were plenty of support materials online.

After a few weeks of spending 30 to 45 minutes a day working through the Python tutorials (little and often), I decided to attempt one of the GCSE programming projects and immediately became stuck. Online tutorial sites are great for learning the syntax of a programming language but don't necessarily teach you to solve problems. This is where computational thinking comes in.

After a call for help on Twitter, I quickly found myself being tutored through the problem solving side of things via Skype and email by two amazing computer scientists @codeboom and @colinthemathmo. Problem solving is the essence of computer science; using a computer as a tool to solve real world problems. The only way to get good at problem solving is practice.

Although when I returned to school in September I still had the annual fear after six weeks off, I was actually quite excited to get started. Teaching the problem solving and programming aspects of computing provided a really interesting contrast to the ICT I had taught previously.

My lower-ability students felt success quicker and gained in confidence by solving relatively simple problems, whereas the higher-ability students came across something that they didn't always get right first time. The problem-solving lessons provided a great platform for differentiation by task and it was amazing to see the students take a step back and really think about the problem and plan out a solution.

One of the tasks I set students was to create a program, using Python, that takes two numbers, multiplies them together and then prints the answer. At the higher end, students had to create a calculator that gave users options and did different things depending on what options the user chose. These problems were tailored to what we had covered in class; topics such as variables, data types, selection and so on. Students had to design a solution on paper, code it and then evaluate their solution.

There were plenty of times when students got stuck (usually logic errors) but sometimes I didn't know the answer. So I advised them to do what I did when I didn't know how to do something – use the internet. Students started becoming quite proficient at searching blogs and forums to seek out the bit of code that would help them.

In hindsight, I focused a little too much on students learning the syntax of a particular coding language rather than embedding wider programming concepts, such as selection and iteration, something I'm going to change in my approach for the upcoming school year. Also, I found that students responded well to the challenge of solving problems rather than just following step-by-step guides.

Obviously they need a starting point, and tutorial sites or syntax guides will give students that. But I'm going to start getting students thinking about problem solving sooner so they can see programming as a tool for solving problems rather than an exercise that they must get right at all costs.

I'm really glad I decided to dive in at the deep end with computing. I believe the students have benefited from much more challenging and engaging lessons which the subject matter of computing tends to lend itself to. With computer science all around us, it's easy to make links to real world scenarios that students can relate to.

Above all I want students to be challenged in lessons and enjoy them and I think computing provides us with a great platform to achieve this.

Stephen O'Callaghan is head of key stage 3 computing at Bristol Brunel Academy. He tweets as @MOCallaghanEdu and blogs at his wordpress site: @mrocallaghan_edu.

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