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For 3rd Year in a Row, ACU’s DET Major in Top 50 Undergraduate Programs

For the 3rd year in a row, the Digital Entertainment Technology major has been recognized as one of the top undergraduate Game Design majors.  That means that every year since the program has been eligible, the Princeton Review has ranked ACU’s DET major in the top 50 undergraduate programs, internationally.
The Princeton Review released its ninth annual ranking lists on March 13th, naming the best undergraduate and graduate schools for students to study and begin a career in game design.  The publication surveyed 150 schools both in the United States and internationally that offer a degree or courses in the game design major, looking at many different aspects of the programs, such as facilities, academic offerings, and career outcomes along with 40 points of data in the areas of academics, faculty, technology and career. Readers can view the profiles of the ranked schools as well as learn more about the process the Princeton Review used to asses the schools by clicking on this link.

Rich Tanner and Brian Burton

Rich Tanner, Clinical Professor of Digital Entertainment Technology, said “We are honored to receive this distinction yet again, and I am extremely proud of the hard work, dedication, and learning that our students are doing that make this recognition possible.”Dr. Brian Burton, Associate Professor of Digital Entertainment Technology, said “It thrilling to once again be recognized by the Princeton Review for what we have accomplished in game development.   We have Digital Entertainment Technology majors all over the country working for major game companies and creating amazing content.  This Spring semester we have already published Virtual Reality content to Steam and we are preparing games that will soon be announced.”

SITC Students Start SIGCHI Chapter On Campus

One of the classes offered in the School of Information Technology and Computing is called CS 330: Human-Computer Interaction, a subject that has sparked much interest because of the intriguing and applicable content. Human-Computer Interaction is a combination of computer science, digital media, psychology, and neuroscience. Dr. James Prather, the professor for the class, sums it up by saying, “It’s about understanding how humans perceive and interact with the world and using that knowledge to make better and more natural user interfaces for our technology.” Although there are two upper-level electives on this topic, HCI 1 and HCI 2, many students end up wanting to learn more about the subject and further their training. Thus, an ACU SIGCHI chapter was born.

SIGCHI at the 2018 ACU Undergraduate Research Festival

SIGCHI stands for “Special Interest Group in Human-Computer Interaction” and has more than forty active local chapters across six continents, to promote local support networks for HCI professionals. The ACU club is a chapter of ACM SIGCHI which is the major guild for both students, instructors, and professionals interested in the subject of Human-Computer Interaction. Once the chapter was established, the students elected officers and started working on a research project to submit at the annual SIGCHI conference, this year taking place in Montreal, Canada. Dr. Prather is the club’s faculty sponsor and research mentor.

Dr. James Prather, sponsor for SIGCHI and this year’s STEM Mentor of the Year

The ACU group chose two research topics of which one is in progress and the other has been published. The paper that was submitted for publication was on the topic of research showing that high-anxiety students who receive encouragement via social media before an exam can perform at the level of low-anxiety students, with a strong correlation between the number of encouraging messages received and the increase in performance. After the students of SIGCHI read this, they started brainstorming ideas to see if there was a difference between actual human encouragement or a bot sending anxious students the same messages. During the Fall 2017 semester, students submitted a proposal to the Institutional Review Board which was approved to conduct an experiment on a class of approximately 40 participating students. All participants were sent encouraging messages via Twitter bots, but only half the class was made aware of this (experimental group), while the other half thought the messages were coming from real people (control group). After comparing the control and experimental groups, they learned that there was indeed a difference: those who thought the encouragement came from humans were more encouraged than those who knew the encouragement was autogenerated. They then analyzed the data and wrote a research paper, submitting it to the SIGCHI student research competition. After going through a peer-reviewed process, they learned that their paper was accepted and published

Gideon Luck, Holly Buff, Collin Blanchard, and Raquel Dottle presenting their research presentation titled “Print (“Good Luck!”): Measuring the Effect of Autogenerated Social Encouragement on Student Anxiety”

 

After this great success the students are planning to go to CHI 2018, the premiere international conference of Human-Computer Interaction which will be held in Montreal, Canada, in order to present their work and try to win the student research competition. This conference is a place where all those researching or working within the field of HCI gather and discuss the latest in interactive technology which includes not only social media, but aspects such as virtual reality, augmented reality, usable security, interaction and play, and even medical technology. This is not only a fantastic academic opportunity for our ACU SIGCHI students but a wonderful professional opportunity as well, as students will be able to put this conference on their resume, impressing grad schools and employers alike. This is also a great reflection on the kinds of opportunities students can expect to have at ACU’s School of Information Technology and Computing, including faculty mentorship, undergraduate research, and presenting research at premier international conferences. The most recent student to enter into an ACM undergraduate research competition was Kayla (Holcomb ’17) McMurry, who won first place in 2016.

The students in the SIGCHI group going to Montreal are: Collin Blanchard, Holly Buff, Travis Cook, Raquel Dottle, Gideon Luck, Alani Peters, Virginia Pettit, Isaak Ramirez, and Jessica Wininger. If you would like to make a donation to SIGCHI Research, please go to this link, choose “Other” as your designation and write in “SITC SIGCHI”. Keep reading future blogs to learn how our group does in April.

Now presenting Dr. James Prather…

We’re celebrating with Dr. James Prather the successful defense of his dissertation and earning his Ph.D. after years of hard work and dedication. Defending a dissertation is the culmination of a long and laborious doctoral program, usually taking place over the span of many years. The dissertation defense is, in its self, a momentous milestone that signals reaching the pinnacle of one’s graduate student career. We’ve asked Dr. Prather to share with us his thoughts on the process.

What did you major in as a doctoral candidate?

The PhD is in Computer Science and my research focus area is Human-Computer Interaction.

Prather defends his dissertation.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in this process?

Teaching full time while also being a full time PhD student.

 

What were your most satisfying achievements during this process?

The publication of papers that I wrote, including work out of my dissertation.

The committee looks through Prather’s disseration slides during his presentation.

What did you learn that most surprised you?

When I was studying for my comprehensive exam in Computer Networking, I ran across a surprising little story: an undertaker named Almon Strowger found out that the wife of his competitor was the town telephone operator and was directing any calls for an undertaker to her husband rather than Strowger. So Strowger invented automatic telephone switching to remove humans from the decision making process and let an impartial machine do the job instead. It’s amazing what often drives technological innovation!

 

For students thinking about pursuing graduate school, what advice would you give them?

Find yourself a study group and communicate regularly – it’s a lifesaver. Get to know your professors and get involved in their research. Treat school like a job: go to work, do your work, come home and leave your work at work. Get some sleep!

 

You do a lot of research and projects with students. Please tell us what you have been doing this year and how you have engaged students in the process.

This year I have been mentoring a group of nine senior students who formed a local chapter of SIGCHI (Special Interest Group in Computer-Human Interaction). They developed a research idea, carried out an experiment, analyzed the data, wrote up the results, and submitted it to a top-tier international conference (SIGCHI 2018) and were accepted. In April, we’ll be traveling to Montreal, Canada, to present the paper and enter into that conference’s student research competition. I have also mentored an individual student in a one-on-one capacity who carried out her own research project during Fall 2017. Both the large group and the individual student will also be presenting at the ACU undergraduate research festival. Finally, I also involve a student or two in my personal research into how novice programmers learn to code and how we can make better user interfaces to increase usability and learnability.

 

What are you looking forward to now that you have successfully defended your dissertation?

Definitely spending more time with my family.

A happy Prather with his dissertation advisor after a succesful defense.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

My wife, Erin, deserves a big shout-out because while I was spending most nights and weekends at work, she was often at home alone with our small children. This PhD was a team achievement, for sure! Also, I don’t think that it would have been possible to complete the PhD without the support and encouragement of my colleagues here at ACU. The faculty with whom I work have all been through this process and have been sympathetic and even offered to help where they could. The staff have gone out of their way to help me when I was beyond busy. I’m so very grateful to work at ACU and I’m looking forward to the years ahead spent right here.

Virtual Reality in the ACU Classroom

From selling goggles at big box retailers to immersive experiences in theme parks and malls to practical use in medicine, virtual reality has become a quickly expanding technological frontier. Our professors, especially those involved with the Digital Entertainment Technology program, are making sure that ACU students are on the cutting edge of this technology. Our students are learning to simulate a virtual space while tracking real-life movements by using special goggles and sensors. Professors Rich Tanner and Brian Burton have opted to use SteamVR Home Environment, a resource associated with a streaming gaming service called Steam, to enable students to gain experience with creating virtual spaces and interacting with virtual reality in ways they otherwise could not. SteamVR Home allows the students to create virtual spaces that can be published and shared and is accessible to the general public by downloading their software.

Students work to perfect their virtual reality spaces simulating the ACU campus.

The Game Development (DET 350) class has given students the tools and opportunities to learn more about creating in the virtual reality space. The class was split into four teams and each team was assigned a space on the ACU campus to model in the virtual reality program. To create these, each room, as well as each object in the room, was measured in order to create an exact replica using 3D modeling. Once the physical space and objects were modeled, students added texture, colors and patterns, and other details so that each space looked as realistic as possible. After the modeling was completed, the 3D objects were imported and placed in the simulated environment.

Matthew Middlebrook, a sophomore DET major, is one of the students in Game Development and participated in the project. Matthew acknowledged that “while this VR project was a lot of work, it strengthened my love for 3D modeling and made me interested in the different applications that VR may have now and in the future.” Matthew’s favorite part of the project – and the part he is most proud of – was creating different textures, especially in the COBA Atrium. “I went into this project with almost no knowledge of textures,” he said. For example, when Matthew first attempted to import his models, the entire COBA Atrium came out white. “I was able to learn quickly and am sure that if I continued looking up tutorials, I could get even better.” This project also taught Matthew to not spend too much time working on little details that could lead to running out of time. “Being the perfectionist I am, it was difficult to not do everything and the way the project worked made it hard to see the progress of my other team members but ultimately it came together nicely.”Even though working on a team-based project like this one can be difficult, the students learned a lot. Nevan Simone, a senior computer science major, said: “I saw once again how valuable it is to have diverse skill-sets within a single team”.

The DET program is teaching students how to create virtual reality spaces because the technical skills learned fundamental for finishing the program and prepares them for the future. You can learn more about this project by watching this video. SteamVR allows students learn to create a large virtual reality project in a hands-on way. The work that ACU students have done has been viewed hundreds of times on the platform and the spaces they have created can be seen by clicking here. We encourage you to check out the awesome things our talented students are working so hard to create.

 

A New Kind of Capstone

“What is a capstone class?” you may ask. “In addition to other discipline-related course goals, the senior-year integrative capstone experience will challenge the student to critically analyze, reflect, and write about the major discipline from the perspective of Christian Worldview.” (Liberal Arts Core Curriculum at ACU, p. 6). In other words, it is the culmination of a student’s classroom and experiential learning experiences during their time in college. James Prather, instructor of Computer Science, created the new capstone class CS 480: Capstone Reflections on Faith and Work, for the School of Information Technology and Computing, joining the two worlds of technology and Christianity together.

James Prather

Prather holds degrees not only in Computer Science but has also earned masters degrees in Divinity and the Old Testament. The class was created to help students bridge the gap between leaving college and starting the rest of their lives. Many issues are tackled in this class such as faith and vocation, asking students questions such as, “What does it mean to be a Christian in the workplace?”. Other topics dealing with post-college life are also covered in the class such as workplace culture, church, friends, dealing with a toxic workplace and/or toxic coworkers, when to make a job change, relationships, budgeting, procrastination, grad school, and more. Prather leads these discussions with the students and also guides them through a book about spiritual disciplines, asking the students to practice a spiritual discipline each week and then write a short reflection on that experience. Prather says this is an attempt to hand students the practical tools to practice their faith not only at church but anywhere they may be: in a cubicle, on their daily commute, during their lunch break, at the gym, at home in the evening, etc.

Cole Spears with Dr. Brent Reeves

Students are asked to write two case studies that consider the ethical implications of technology on humans created in the image of God. To wrap up the course, students are asked to write a personal theology of work, helping them to synthesize the entire semester into a personal statement of what it means to be a Christian in the technology workplace. Students are also asked to make a personal portfolio which helps them look back on the past four years and see what they have done, where they have been and who they have met along the way. Cole Spears, Computer Science major from Abilene, said this has helped him realize “While it may not seem that a career as a Software Developer intersects with the life of a ministry for Jesus, there are in fact many ways I can lead a life for Christ. Simply, in my everyday interactions, I can have the peace, joy, and love of Christ throughout all of my interactions with coworkers, management, and clients. Through just being an extension of Christ, a branch from the vine, to others, I will be able to share the love of Jesus with us.”

Technology Students Learn From Each Other in App Showcase Experience

In an effort to look at continuous improvement in offering students hands on, real-world experience in the classroom, the SITC faculty brainstormed a way to better integrate the experience of the freshman ITC 110 class (Introduction to Information, Technology, and Computing) with teaching upperclassmen how to manage and mentor in a group setting. They had success in the previous ITC 110 class with upperclassmen volunteering to help manage the freshmen app groups. The goal for the fall 2017 class was to continue the mentoring experience but to bring in more upperclassmen to manage the projects and give not only the freshmen helpful and practical advice but to develop the management skills of the older students. 

Students share their creativity during the App Showcase.

They looked to a class called IT 460 (Managing Technical Projects), a senior capstone course in which students learn organization and leadership techniques and are given an individual management assignment. This seemed like the perfect solution so the faculty decided to move forward with the idea of using these students to mentor and manage the freshmen projects. 

Mid semester app projects were proposed by the students within the ITC 110 class and teams were created. Each team consisted of two or three managers and six ITC 110 students (two Computer Science majors, two DET majors and two IS/IT majors).  Every Tuesday, the ITC 110 class would begin with a visit from the project managers to their respective group where they would spend about 15 minutes to talk about progress of the app, goals for the week, and to answer any questions their ITC 110 team had about the process. At the end of the semester, it was each team’s turn to present their app at the ITC 110 App Showcase.  Click on the link below to enjoy a short video clip of Dr. Ray Pettit interviewing student app developers and managers, talking about what they learned in this unique process.

ITC 110 App Showcase