CMU grad program uses dramatic arts to infuse creativity into the thinking of high-tech students
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Billed as "the graduate program for the left and right brain," Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center is a place where people from diverse technological and artistic disciplines collaborate on a wide range of projects.
It was founded in 1998 as a joint program between the School of Computer Science and the College of Fine Arts. Its original co-directors also came from the left- and right-brain worlds: Donald Marinelli, who at the time was associate head of the drama department, and the late Randy Pausch, a computer science professor whose 2007 "Last Lecture" talk on the meaning of life in the face of death was downloaded millions of times and became a best-selling book.
ETC has a satellite in Silicon Valley, which is based at the headquarters of gaming manufacturer Electronic Arts in Redwood City, Calif.
The two-year master of entertainment technology program is mostly a mix of tech and design students, and it draws a large number of international students to the campus.
In the first semester, students take courses in visual storytelling, project management and improv acting. The idea of having a group of techies learning the acting process sounds odd at first, but it serves a purpose. "When you have a group of students from wildly different backgrounds -- engineers, artists and international students, it's a great leveler," said Brenda Harger, associate teaching professor at ETC, who teaches the improv classes. "It's a great place to start from. It gives them a new language."
Improv exercises teach them skills that will apply to careers in the entertainment tech industry, such as storytelling, creating characters, solving problems in real time and doing presentations. "They become more comfortable thinking on their feet and presenting their projects," Ms. Harger said.
The rest of the two-year program consists of three semester-long research projects. Some students spend one semester doing internships.
It's impossible to develop and deliver a finished product over the course of a semester. Instead, the students end the term with a prototype, a working model, or the basics of game play.
About half of all ETC alumni go to work in the video game industry, and the rest in the film industry, theme parks and tech companies. Several have launched spinoff companies, many of which are based in the region.
ETC director Drew Davidson believes that the culture and environment at ETC gives students something extra. "They are super comfortable in interdisciplinary teams -- artists, programmers, musicians. Because of how intense our curriculum is, our students are fearless about tackling something they've never done before." And working with clients on research projects gives them invaluable real world skills, he said. "They're ready to hit the ground running wherever they go."
Students can choose to work on projects with companies that sign on with ETC as sponsors or they can pitch their own ideas.
Many projects focus on education and finding new ways to engage children in learning about science and technology, such as the ongoing work with the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh's MAKESHOP program. Others have applications in health care. ETC also has worked with other departments within the university, including psychology and philosophy.
And some projects are just plain fun: This semester, a team of students is working on Amalgamedia, a transmedia interactive Web video for the band Anti-Flag, which will combine different forms of digital media.
First Published February 17, 2013 12:00 am