Director of CMU's ETC likes to tell stories in many different ways
February 17, 2013 5:00 AM
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
Drew Davidson fosters collaborative teamwork at CMU.
By Maria Sciullo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As a child Drew Davidson had to earn the money to buy toys or comics. But books?
"My parents said, 'Any time you want a book, we'll get you one,' " he said.
Then, as now, it was all about the stories for Mr. Davidson. As acting director of Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, his work inhabits the happy marriage of high tech and unfettered imagination.
"Drew is one of my favorite people in Pittsburgh," said Jane Werner, executive director of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. "He just makes me think differently, and I value that in a friend."
The ETC was founded by the late Randy Pausch and Don Marinelli 14 years ago, and its two-year program offers a rarity in eduction: a master's in entertainment technology. The focus is on teamwork, leadership and innovation, with a little less than half of the 180 or so students coming from technical backgrounds such as computer science and engineering.
Another 40-45 percent have artistic backgrounds. Another slice of the demographic pie comprises students with backgrounds in theater, business, creative writing and music. Sixty percent are male, and 60 percent are international. Many heard about the program through Mr. Pausch's "Last Lecture," in which he talked about his "Building Virtual Worlds" class.
"I would have loved to have come here [as a student]; it's collaborative teamwork," he said of ETC.
Mr. Davidson, 43, grew up in North Carolina and was studying pre-med before a theater class sparked his interest in transmedia -- telling stories across multiple platforms, digital and traditional.
"We humans are storytellers. That's how we make sense of our experiences," he said. "It goes all the way back to oral storytelling around the campfire. ... I got very interested when I was doing my master's at the University of North Carolina."
For his master's thesis, he wrote, cast, staged and directed a performance piece influenced by the art of Jasper Johns.
"I'm really interested in 'how do we process art when we're looking at it?' " he said.
The graduate committee agreed that the piece was his master's thesis, but officials from the graduate school said they wouldn't let him graduate until he turned in a paper.
"So I ended up turning in my script and a short piece analyzing what I'd done, but I also then sort of declared it was an academic failure. My point was to try to prove that a performance could be valid academic work.
"Obviously it has not been successful in that regard because it is not being accepted by the graduate school," he said.
He ran into a similar problem at the University of Texas. Eager to join the Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory under pioneer Allucquere Rosanne "Sandy" Stone, Mr. Davidson headed to Austin.
In 2001, he earned a doctorate in communications studies, presenting a website as his dissertation.
"I [believed I] could use hypertextual linking and make it a bit nonlinear," he said. "As usual, my graduate school committee was like, 'Yeah, that's awesome, do it.' And the graduate school was 'Where's your paper?' "
"Change can be slow in that regard, and I guess that inspired me when I got into the industry to use technology for education."
A big influence on his teaching philosophy was working at the Austin software development company Human Code. Co-workers came from all walks of life to collaborate.
"You're seeing more and more in schools like this, where you get artists and designers and musicians and you put them together to make something they couldn't do by themselves.
"That's really cool."
Human Code also was where he met his wife, Chris, on her first day of work.
"What do they call them, 'cubicle gophers'? He would stick his head up and say, 'Hi, how's it going, what are you doing, how are you?' " she said. "That became sort of his hallmark. He loves to visit people that are working. It's sort of how he decompresses when he's working."
His enthusiasm for the world ("He's highly interested in just about everything," his wife said) can be infectious. It's great in a learning environment but pretty cool at the end of the day as well.
"He'll come home and say, 'I've got to show you this video game, it is BE-U-T-FUL; it's transcendent, the music and the art, you're really going to like it,' " she said. "He'll show me these new discoveries of his that have turned him on, and I have to admit, he's got an eye for that."
'We're the troublemakers'
The ETC occupies the equivalent of more than two floors of a fairly nondescript building off Second Avenue, overlooking the Monongahela River. Other tenants include CMU's science research labs, but there is no mistaking whose figurative houses occupy Park Place.
"We're the troublemakers," Mr. Davidson said gleefully.
The entire top floor is geek heaven. The walls are smattered with Alex Ross prints of Batman, the Joker and other superheroes, and there are displays with real-size displays of R2-D2 and C-3PO as well as Mike and Sulley from Pixar's "Monsters, Inc."
Guarding the lobby downstairs is a hulking replica of The Hulk. Robots, everywhere, including Robby from "Forbidden Planet." Stashed against a wall is a giant video game controller, left over from a student project.
A large model of Han Solo's Millennium Falcon hangs from the ceiling over a computer lab.
A room on one of the lower floors is crammed with stuff, from surfboards to equestrian saddles. They're used for on-the-fly projects in a class where teams improvise to create new worlds.
And, of course, to tell stories. It's all about the stories.
The ETC teaches creative problem-solving and design through teamwork. New students go through a first-semester boot camp. Eventually, the artistic students will take classes in computer science and the traditional techies will take the mandatory improv classes from the drama department.
"[Improv] is a wonderful paradigm for brainstorming, for creating something from nothing," he said.
ETC graduates go on to work for video game companies, animation studios and theme parks. At CMU, they collaborate on projects for a long list of clients including the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and the Elizabeth Forward School District.
"Drew is at the forefront of some of the most creative movements [in education]" Elizabeth Forward superintendent Bart Rocco said. ETC established the SMALLab in the middle school, where kids use game scenarios to learn subjects such as fractions and grammar.
"Games give kids an opportunity to keep trying something until they get it right. If they're not successful, they don't throw the game away. They go back at it."
The key, Mr. Rocco said, is to transfer that enthusiasm to other, more traditional educational goals.
"Good game design is good learning design," Mr. Davidson said. "If you finish and win, it's taught you well."
Over on the North Side, ETC, the Children's Museum and the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments are partnering to present MAKESHOP. Visitors can use DIY and digital tools to create projects.
Another ETC project at the museum involves using computer programs to play with blocks, and one of the first things it did there was to "digitalize" the puppet collection.
Mr. Davidson likes to tell the story of the time he was invited to speak before a crowd of children's museum directors from across the country.
"It ended up being the most controversial talk because a lot of them were, 'No, we don't like games in the museum!' A lot of children's museums have a policy of no screens ... but they just needed time to digest it."
"I told him it was going to be a rough crowd, but he's such a nice person, even if you disagree with him, you really like him," Ms. Werner said.
Mr. Davidson is teaching two ETC courses this year: transmedia storytelling and "serious" board games, as in games for social impact or education.
Before he arrived at CMU in 2004 as an affiliated professor, Mr. Davidson worked at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He became director of the ETC Pittsburgh campus in 2006 -- there also are campuses in California and Japan -- and with the retirement of Mr. Marinelli last year, became acting overall head.
Among teaching, administrative duties and speaking engagements, there's a lot on his plate. It helps that at home in Brentwood with his wife, their three dogs and two cats, he's usually up at 4 a.m. "That's when he's most productive," Mrs. Davidson said.
This also explains why one of his two favorite things in the world is being able to go back to bed for a few hours on Saturdays. (His other favorite: having dinner at Smoke Barbecue Taqueria in Homestead.)
Sitting in his corner office on a dreary winter day, Mr. Davidson played with a stack of wooden magnet blocks ("They're horribly addictive when you're on a conference call") as the discussion came back around to books.
He mentioned "Catch-22" and "Moby-Dick" as favorites. The latter, he said, was total drudge work in high school but became "amazing" when reread years later.
So, what changed?
"Probably, me," he said. "It's interesting because, well, I'll tell you a story ..."