Riding the Gaming Trend
Facing numbers that were undeniable, Dr. Timothy Roden went with the numbers and turned around an Angelo State University computer science program that had seen flat enrollment for a decade.
Americans spend more than 200 million hours a day playing computer games, and Roden decided to tap into that popularity. As a result, his computer science program now boasts the highest per capita undergraduate enrollment of any state university in Texas.
According to a 2011 U.S. National Gamers Survey conducted by the Newzoo international market research firm, there are 145 million active computer gamers in the U.S. who last year spent more than $21 billion on gaming hardware and software to fill up those 200 million hours of daily play. Recognizing the potential those numbers pose for its computer science program, ASU has tailored its curriculum to mirror trends in the computer gaming industry, which has resulted in both national recognition and sustained growt
The uptick in program growth began soon after its new director, Roden, introduced courses in computer game development in 2008. It got another boost when ASU was honored in 2010 as having one of the “Top 50 Undergraduate Game Design Programs in North America” by Princeton Review and Game Developer magazine. Overall, enrollment almost tripled from 75 in the fall of 2007 to 220 in the fall of 2011.
“I didn’t realize how big that Princeton Review designation was,” Roden said. “The very next semester, we started getting students from all over Texas, all over the U.S. and even internationally. We had students come in from England, Norway and South Korea. I asked them why they were here, and they all said it was because of the designation by Princeton Review.”
To more tangibly gauge the success of his program, Roden in 2011 conducted an unofficial survey of enrollment in Texas public university computer science programs. ASU had just over 3 percent of its 7,105 students majoring in computer science, well above the 1 percent average of the 17 other schools who answered the survey.
“The next-highest in the survey was Midwestern State in Wichita Falls with 1.8 percent,” Roden said. “Based on the survey, I’m claiming that ASU has the ‘most popular’ computer science program in Texas.”
But growing the program is not just about adding a few courses, winning awards or topping surveys. It is also about catering to industry needs and giving students what they want.
“The number one question I get from prospective students is, ‘Do you have computer game development?,” Roden said. “So it was natural for us to focus on that. Also, many prospective college students play a lot of games, have mobile phones and are involved in social networking, so that is how they perceive computing. By tailoring our curriculum to teach the skills for students who want to develop those types of applications, we can better connect with them.”
“Also, Texas hosts more computer game development companies than any other state except California,” he continued. “As an example, a few months ago Electronic Arts announced it is moving its EA Sports division of 500 employees to Austin. Texas is often called the ‘Silicon Prairie’ because of all its technology companies, so establishing this program at ASU positions us to interact and collaborate with a rapidly growing industry in need of skilled workers.”
Seeing ASU’s potential as a prime resource for the gaming industry, Roden upon his arrival in 2007 put his plan in motion. The first thing he did was change the department’s Bachelor of Science degree plan from what he called a “large kernel” concept to a “small kernel” model. At the time, the degree plan included a large section of required courses and only two elective courses. That was reversed to a smaller set of core classes and expanded elective opportunities.
“I was thinking about adding four or five courses,” Roden said. “But, with only two electives in the program, that wasn’t going to be possible. By changing to the ‘small kernel’ approach, we went to five electives. We eliminated some courses as ‘required,’ but still offer them as electives for students interested in taking them.”
“Our strategy,” he continued, “is to give students a B.S. in computer science, but let them focus that degree in the area they are interested in. If it is computer game design, then we have courses for that. If it is something else, like networking, artificial intelligence or databases, then they can focus on that. The general purpose B.S. degree gives the students more flexibility after graduation so they are not pigeonholed into one particular area.”
The four-course gaming sequence was added in 2008, including an introductory course, two courses in computer game development and a course in handheld game development. In formulating the introductory course, Roden aimed it at retaining computer science lowerclassmen.
“To get to the two game development courses, students need four semesters of learning how to program,” Roden said. “But, we want students to be able to take the entry-level course to get a taste of gaming during their first year as an incentive to continue in the program and get excited about it. The introductory course is open to all students, regardless of major, and we’ve actually had some students change their majors to computer science because of it. I’ve not seen another class like it anywhere.”
Roden believes the handheld game development course is also distinctive to ASU in Texas. Initially designed to teach students to program Nintendo Game Boy devices, the course has since evolved along with the gaming industry. According to estimates from the Entertainment Software Association, the fastest growing segment of the gaming market is for mobile devices with 55 percent of gamers now playing on smart phones, tablets and iPods.
“Mobile gaming sales are going through the roof,” Roden said. “So, in the spring of 2011, we taught our handheld course for the first time using the Android format. At that time, I couldn’t find any other university in Texas that was teaching a course in Android programming, so I think we were the first.”
“I’d like to add another handheld programming course in the iOS format,” he continued. “Mobile gaming is an even bigger trend than I thought.”
Offering the Android course has also attracted several private companies seeking partnerships to develop technology alongside ASU faculty and students. MyMail, a San Angelo-based software company, partnered with ASU’s computer science program and IT Office in the spring of 2011 to develop cloud-based security software. Distinct to the new software is its ability to store data securely on the cloud using a patent-pending “keyless” client-side encryption technology that generates a unique encryption key for each file stored on the cloud, after which the key is destroyed.
“It is then able to regenerate the keys once the files are downloaded back to a personal device,” Roden said. “An important feature of the software is that it runs efficiently on Windows PCs as well as mobile devices utilizing Android and iOS formats.”
The software is currently under an options license agreement with MyMail, which plans to market it.
Another company, Fort Worth tech startup MedHab, approached Roden in October of 2011. Their discussions led to MedHab giving ASU a $90,000 grant to develop software, including mobile apps, for a newly-patented wearable medical device called StepRight. The product is designed for people with leg injuries, and automates much of their physical therapy using sensors that send data in real time to cloud-based servers. The system also makes use of mobile phones to transfer data to caregivers in case a patient is not at home or near a computer. Roden is the principal investigator on the project supervising several ASU students and recent graduates.
“The product is due for FDA trials this summer and should enter the marketplace this fall,” Roden said.
Other ASU technology partners include IBM, Netsafe and USAA, and Roden hopes to add more in the future.
“Long-term,” Roden said, “ASU may well become a center for software technology commercialization as we intend to collaborate with many more companies, especially tech startups in Texas.”
Collaborating with technology companies is also giving ASU students direct hands-on experience. Much of the rest of their time in the program is spent in the Entertainment Computing Lab (ECL). The ECL is dedicated to the gaming program and contains state-of-the-art Dell XPS computers equipped with a suite of game development software, including Lightwave 3-D, BodyPaint, FaceGen, 3-D file conversion software, Microsoft programming tools, and Adobe PhotoShop, Audition and Premier. Each computer also has a Web camera, and the lab has projectors, microphones and printers.
“It is really the focal point of a lot of our efforts in our curriculum and our summer camps,” Roden said. “Without the lab, I don’t think we would have had this dramatic increase in enrollment and, certainly, it would be hard to teach the classes or have summer camps without it. There is no lab like it on campus.”
To go along with all the practical experience, ASU students who complete the game development sequence also receive a certificate in computer game development to supplement their bachelor’s degrees.
“We wanted our students to have an extra credential to put on their résumés,” Roden said. “We also recently added a 3-D Modeling and Animation course as a first step toward adding a minor in digital arts. That would also add some pizzazz to their résumés.”
U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics regularly show that computer programming is one of the top job-growth areas for people with a four-year college degree, and according to Game Developer magazine, starting average salaries for new computer science graduates is $59,000. The challenge for Roden now is to build on ASU’s current success and keep his program in line with an ever-evolving industry.
“We have to stay abreast of new technology and always offer it to our students,” Roden said. “As long as we are offering them the latest and greatest tools, software, computing and instruction in that kind of technology, they will be able to go out and get jobs in the computer industry, whether it’s gaming or another area. I have full confidence we will be able to do that. We’ll just have to keep on our toes.”
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Named to the prestigious Princeton Review's "Best 376 Colleges" for 2011-12, Angelo State University has long been recognized as one of the permier regional public universities in the nation.
As the second largest campus in the Texas Tech University System, ASU is recognized for its quality academics. Its physics, computer science, biology, chemistry and teacher education programs have gained national recognition, as have its Honors Program, Center for International Studies and Center for Security Studies.
ASU's student body of more than 7,000 attend classes on a beautifully landscaped, 268-acre, $345 million campus located in San Angelo, Texas, a community of more than 100,000 friendly citizens.