Soft Skills and Teamwork in Computer Graphics

Marla Schweppe and Joe Geigel

Professor and Associate Professor
College of Imaging Arts & Sciences and Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences
3D Digital Graphic Modeling, 3D Digital Graphic Character Design, Applications in Virtual Reality
Campus-Based Courses

In the "real" world, computer graphic artists and computer programmers frequently collaborate on projects, something that Marla Schweppe and Joe Geigel wanted to echo in their combined class. Their vision was to have students develop a theatrical performance where everyone—the performers, the production crew, and the audience—would all be in different physical locations and converge in a virtual space.

Students from the two different disciplines work together to develop the “assets”—characters, sets, and props—that are brought to life utilizing motion capture, game, and physics engines. Through this interdisciplinary approach, design students and programming students learn how they can effectively communicate across their areas of expertise.

Teaching and Learning

Marla and Joe knew from their theatrical experience that the drive, processes, and skill sets required to have a performance ready by opening night would provide students with opportunities to learn and apply important artistic, technical, and interpersonal skills. Students would especially need to learn how to collaborate and negotiate across disciplines—critical experience that mirrors real-world requirements.

Communication is key to this collaboration, and the instructors emphasize the need to be very specific when conveying ideas, particularly when communicating across disciplines.

Marla: “Students hear about the need for communication in other classes, but they don't really understand the value of it and the depth of differences in how people talk.”

Joe: “What we call Boolean, they call constructive solid geometry. Totally different terms, but they sort of mean the same thing.”

Motion capture setup

Motion Capture

This emphasis on developing ‘soft skills’ is important, because while software keeps changing, the collaboration experience and interpersonal skills transfer directly to the workplace.

Teaching Strategies and Tools

One critical aspect of Joe and Marla’s approach is having students work toward a solid, defined deliverable with a non-negotiable deadline. This requires all students to do their part, and, as Marla says, “there’s no place to hide.” When there is a problem, students need to negotiate to change the plan or the schedule, since there is no option of missing the deadline.

Students can think they're getting by, but "reality hits real fast." Peer evaluations are built into the grading process to make sure that the instructors get the real story, although they can usually tell when a student isn’t pulling his or her weight in the course. But more often, the evaluations are a chance for students to be recognized for their contributions.

Marla: “The peer review sheets validate students in that they can say that they worked really hard or to face that they might not have worked as hard as they could have... or to hear this from others.”

Virtual characters and their real-life counterparts

Virtual characters and their real-life counterparts

As in the industry, the software that students use is constantly evolving, but the classes work smoothly because Joe and Marla know the process and their role, which is different from other classes. They list themselves as the Artistic Director and Technical Director, which changes their roles as instructors.

Joe: “You’re not designing lectures or giving tests-—you have to shift gears. You are now a manager.”

Experiences and Results

Student response to the classes has been very positive. They enjoy the opportunity to work on real-world projects with specific parameters. In addition, the experience gives them a chance to develop the skills they need in a competitive industry. Joe and Marla can see the growth and change in their students during the course.

Joe: "One of the most satisfying things for me was seeing one of our head programmers talking to one of the head designers about getting the piece to work. At the beginning, they were talking at each other. However, by the end of the conversation, everything was adjusted appropriately."

The comprehensive productions also mean that students might finally understand why they had to learn things from previous courses because now they have to apply that knowledge. 

Characters on the virtual stage

Characters on the virtual stage

Students feel a sense of pride from participating in a project that they care about, that they took ownership for, and one that provides them with a solid portfolio piece to show employers.

Joe: “It works because there is a solid deliverable at the end of the courses—there was a deadline that had to be met, not just for the course.”