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Creating Creatures Classified: A Collaboratory Tale of (University) Students Designing STEM Games for (Elementary) Students

Creating Creatures Classified: A Collaboratory Tale of (University) Students Designing STEM Games for (Elementary) Students

Things run a bit differently in academia. By January, 2011, we were only just getting to work on the production section due to the enormous amount of work that was required to connect Creatures Classified with the school infrastructure. (We're at IUPUI.)

Once Creatures Classified was awarded funds, we submitted necessary paperwork to get our two classes into the Informatics Media Arts & Science (MAS) curriculum. The schedule for Fall 2010 had already been determined, but Prof. Stewart was fortunately granted permission to change the focus of her Informatics class on analysis of the production class, which would give us a solid set of plans for the Spring production team.  

With scheduling, the most difficult challenge was the implementation of the Spring production class. Once it was a go, we worked diligently to acquire all the space needed for this endeavor. I was able to book our newly created dedicated game-lab (MARLA – Media Arts & Science Research Learning Arcade) for the main productions, the conference room for our meetings and for art creation, and the 255 lab, which is the only PC lab available for the cinematic and 3D team.

When those pieces were in place we were only missing the talent. The professors and I announced the creation of this special Spore Class to the student body and established an interview and portfolio review schedule with accompanying deadlines. Many students applied for the classes but due to restraints we were only able to take 15. We were quite lucky as the 15 that we took on just happened to be mostly upperclassmen and some of the most talented students we have.

It should be noted that everyone was required to assist with the making of Spore level and Spore assets. The students who have taken my game classes in the past are already familiar with Spore, as I have made it a crucial part of my classroom lectures and assignments – I found it really loosens up students’ creativity.

Once we gathered all the people and the right ingredients we were ready to work. Everyone was so glad to be there and I have never seen students in my history clamber to work on a project as much as they have on this. It has certainly been a challenge to keep everything organized and to make sure tasks are balanced, but the class formed its own culture and the students really helped lead the way.

The class met officially every Monday in MARLA to discuss the weekly topics, present ideas, make sure everyone was on the same page, and watch inspirational science and natural history films to help spur on the creativity. Every other Friday was an optional day from 1-4pm to go over level design, Spore research, and to just get everyone comfortable with the software. It was a very engaging time and the camaraderie was developing quite nicely between everyone.

The technical support from the university has been a blessing. Spore is fickle software and it seems to have a mind of its own. The technical staff at IUPUI helped set up the entire Spore Game and all of its expansions across two labs, and made it available to all of our team members. Kim Melluck, the head of technical support, has gone out of her way to devise a series of systems to make sure that when Spore stopped working, we did not. Additionally, we were able to get most of the technical team to make their own Spore games and play and research alongside us.

The project has also gotten lucky with its secondary non-student members. We currently have an alumni member (who founded the Independent Video Game Developers Association here in Indianapolis) consulting with the art team, Thomas Marshall.

Additionally, we have been lucky to bring on a 5th grade art teacher (who is also an instructional designer), Elizabeth White Jefferies, who is proving to be an invaluable resource who can help direct the art team as well as give us crucial insight into 5th graders

Finally, to fully hit home the educational aspect of this project, we have Dr. Ofer Levy from the IUPUI School of Education helping us. Dr. Levy will be combing through our creations and making sure they adhere to strict educational guidelines and that they actually do what they say, teaching students about the classification system in a fun and engaging way.

This will be most important when we enter the second-to-last phase of the project, playtesting. We are going to bring in as many different groups of 5th graders that we can find and have them play and test our levels. They will be our most important, critical judges and we will adjust/adapt the game based on their suggestions and insights.

I truly have high hopes for this endeavor and I want it to have a life beyond the grant and beyond the classroom. I have designed it to be the first of an entire series of educational modules that will go far in educating its desired audiences as well as giving a chance to our underclassmen to work on a real-world project and prepare them for a career in professional game-making.

So many projects just live in the classroom for a few weeks and then are discarded, and I want to rally against that with this project. It should mean something to everyone involved, including those who play it and those who craft it, which is why I have gone above and beyond the original idea. We have taken on so many students to show off their myriad talents and to produce a body of work.

The project is going to be a fully immersive world that comes with:

  • The Spore games and the unique levels we create to fully educate students on the varied and complex world of classification,
  • An accompanying field guide that can be printed out and altered by the teacher based on the class needs. It will be designed to be personalized by each individual student so that they have a vested interest in its construction.
  • An engaging and original 3d cinematic to get the kids fired up and transfixed with the story being told over the various levels and game tiers.An iPhone or Droid app that will allow them to share their knowledge with their parents and for the parents to quiz and educate the kids on the go.
  • A complete media campaign to promote and demonstrate the talents of our team members. The FB page and internal Wiki are going far to create dialogue and get the members really focused on the topics at hand. We have been video-taping and documenting all of our meetings and soon we will have a media blitz to show how all of this is possible and to hopefully inspire other classes to follow our lead. Below are the links to our various media outlets. This is something that was really hit home by our involvement with MacArthur and HASTAC and we aim to please with our work.

I realize that this may be a bit much but I have seen IUPUI pull off amazing projects in the past and I am sure this will be up there. Elizabeth told us today how schools in Indiana are cutting their science programs and now only focus on Math or Language.

We found this to be disheartening, but realized just how crucial our project may become in the upcoming years. There is definitely a place for this type of project. Students should have the same in-depth and engaging science classroom experiences that we had.

I am confident that Creatures Classified will help to establish a new form of science education, needed at the right time.

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1 comment

This sounds like such a cool project - where does it stand today?