The idea for the next Fortnite could come from Scott Myers’ classroom at Lathrop High School, about 65 miles from the heart of Silicon Valley.
The video game design course is giving students skills and experiences that you would expect to see in game development giants like Epic Games or Electronic Arts, and at least one prestigious programming college has taken note of these creative and uniquely skilled kids.
Myers, a member of the Manteca Educators Association (MEA), teaches about 120 students a day in the fine art of computer programming, video game design, 3-D modeling and other tech skills. In addition to the class for students from his own high school, he teaches a class for students from other district high schools and a course for BE.Tech, a district-operated charter school.
“It’s all stuff I never thought I’d do in high school,” says senior Alexander Stock. “Mr. Myers is cool. It feels like he’s a student with us sometimes.”
Myers’ video game design class is based on curriculum he pioneered and had approved in 2014 by the California Department of Education as a college preparatory elective. The idea grew out of a computer operator class he began teaching after his tech-centric service in the U.S. Air Force led him into education. He noticed that while his students were learning new skills, much of the programming work was tedious and boring. A gamer himself, Myers turned to teaching his students how to code video games, first as functions in Microsoft Excel and then as full games in Flash, a programming platform previously the standard for online multimedia content.
“I think I was just the first person who put the effort into the process to make game design a legit college prep elective,” says Myers, whose curriculum now serves as the basis for similar programs throughout the state. “We had 50 visits that year by people who wanted to see what we were doing.”
And there is certainly lots to see in Myers’ classrooms. Thirty intricately designed and startlingly real zombie heads greet visitors to his 3-D modeling and design room — a “modern-day shop class” — while pictures of famous tech designers adorn the walls in one of his programming classrooms. It’s not just fun and games; all of Myers’ students work with industry-standard software, and this year’s coding project was the design of a virtual reality program teaching people how to properly use a fire extinguisher.
“Even though we’re making games, we can make games for things other than fun,” Myers says. “I try to give the kids a sampling of everything. I show the kids 100 things, and they can pick what they like best.”
This freedom, coupled with access to professional-grade equipment that you might see on MythBusters, provides his students with a specialized set of skills that’s attracting attention from the tech world. In a testament to Myers and his program, seven of his students now attend Cogswell Polytechnical College, a private college in San Jose that boasts one of the top video game design and digital animation programs in the country. With fewer than 500 full-time students at the specialty college, seven coming from the same program in the same small town is exceptionally noteworthy. Some of Myers’ former students are already starting careers with Cartoon Network, Facebook and Yahoo.
Last year, Myers and some of his students embarked on a unique project with an organization named Magic Wheelchair, designing a Halloween costume for a Turlock boy whose health condition severely limits his mobility and confines him to a wheelchair. The team spent hundreds of hours on their own time creating a costume that turned young Cash Goeppert’s chair into a monster truck. The design and creation made for a memorable experience, but why they put in all the work made it even more special.
“Making stuff is cool, but making stuff for someone else is even better,” says senior Tristan Hofstad.
Myers and his team of students are currently working on another wheelchair, this time with an Alien vs. Predator theme. From the design schematics on a white board to a hand-sculpted clay mold of the iconic Alien head, the group hopes to brighten the life of another local resident. The big reveal will happen at the Modesto Comic Convention later this year.
“This is so great because the students get to do this project almost in a commercial setting. We have to do this as professionally as we can,” Myers says. “For the students, this isn’t just charity. It’s real-world experience.”