Summer Program Intros Teens to Software Behind Pokémon Go

A summer-time enrichment experience for high schoolers at Penn State has taken on a heightened level of excitement with the use of the same development tools behind the global phenom Pokémon Go.

Penn State and five other institutions host multi-week programs that give students a chance to taste university life while getting intensive introductions to subjects ranging from art to sports marketing. The video game development program is led by Madis Pihlak, an associate professor of art and architecture at Penn State, who has taught the two-week class for four years.

Besides Unity, the platform used by Niantic to create Pokémon Go and other popular games, the course also introduces students to AutoDesk's Maya, a program used for 3D animation, modeling, simulation and rendering.

"It takes a lot of energy to prepare for this course," said Pihlak, in a university article about his course. "The software we are using is the most complex out there, and the students have zero background in it."

Pihlak uses problem-based learning, which brings the students together for team problem-solving.

"I start with Maya, teaching paint effects. There are literally 900,000,000 options within a single dialogue box — I can't explain it all," noted Pihlak. "Instead, I give them the basics to get started, and then we work interactively to help them create while learning the program. They ask me questions, and I have to be a detective and figure out why something is not working. We solve problems together. It's radical because it goes against the idea that the professor knows everything."

A five-week version of the summer program also includes community service opportunities. The hefty price tag for that edition, $6,599, is often offset by scholarships made available to students whose families would otherwise lack the resources to send them.

"It is an absolutely outstanding educational and social experience, said Summer Study Director David Wolk, a Penn State alum himself. "Some parents who want their children to go to Penn State use this as a way to get their children interested. And when it does come time for going away for fall semester, our students look back at their experience at Summer Study and see how it helped them with time management and the diverse, communal living experience."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.