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Palmer’s Cyber Tech Studios builds critical thinkers with a global approach to learning 

High-tech High

click to enlarge Community partnerships may open doors for students hoping to pitch a startup idea. - BRYAN GROSSMAN
  • Bryan Grossman
  • Community partnerships may open doors for students hoping to pitch a startup idea.

It’s a Monday morning and the Cyber Tech Studios’ first class of the day is humming.

Housed in Palmer High School, the high-tech space hosts pupils working on an assortment of projects during their Game Design IV course. Instructor Sean Wybrant looks on along with guests Shawn Gullixson, a Colorado Springs School District 11 board member and vice president of Vectra Bank Colorado, and Natasha Main, executive director of Peak Startup.

As the adults discuss possible collaborations, one student is focusing on the script for a game while classmates take the characters, storyline, plot and setting and begin the design. Another student is working on a 3D model of an avatar that will act as an in-game guide. Yet another is experimenting with augmented reality experiences next to a classmate who is programming a two-dimensional platforming game. One student is working on a game that helps teach users about light.

“He’s working on creating an experience, the puzzle side of the game, to make interactive pieces that will work with a holographic headset,” said Wybrant, who created the Cyber Tech Studios concept about five years ago. “The headset we’re working on for that one is a Microsoft HoloLens and it does spatial tracking. It will figure out where the walls, floors, ceilings and tables are. The way the experience works right now is, we will attach a virtual laser on the headset. You put virtual mirrors in the physical space to bounce virtual light around real objects to get it to a virtual endpoint. If you hit an actual physical object, it will shut the laser off.”

Cesar Gonzalez is a senior who hadn’t owned a home gaming system until last year. It was also a year ago when Gonzalez began taking game programming at Palmer. Today he’s working on a cocktail table game system that will stay at the school when it’s completed.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Gonzalez said of his first class. “I actually started with a tutorial course in making a small video game. I coded it. [Wybrant] approached me last year and said, ‘I see you have an engineering mindset. I know you like to build things.’”

Gonzalez said the class inspired him to go into electrical engineering. 

“I always wanted to be an engineer but didn’t know which path to take — mechanical, civil. This class persuaded me to go into electrical engineering. I want to study at UCCS and then wherever grad school takes me.”

While “game” is in the title of several courses, the skills learned in the Cyber Tech Studios, Wybrant said, actually create problem-solvers, globally aware entrepreneurs, and a prepared and relevant workforce for tomorrow.

Wybrant came to Palmer High School in 2012 as a game and web design instructor. Named the 2017 Colorado Teacher of the Year, he spent two years building the Cyber Tech Studios concept which, he said, is really about providing students with a full cyber studio experience, including access to state-of-the-art motion-capture equipment, as well as virtual reality and augmented reality technology. The classroom even has a recording studio for those who want to incorporate audio into their projects. 

Wybrant, however, said the courses he teaches don’t necessarily exist to create techies, but rather critical thinkers. 

“On the first day of class I pull everyone into a big huddle and say, ‘This class is going to be really hard. Not because you need to memorize stuff, but because we’re going to try to identify problems worth solving and then go off and solve them,’” Wybrant said. “Kids ask how to get an ‘A’ in the class. I say, pick a problem and solve it.

“We’re more about processing — getting kids out of the mindset where the teacher gives you lots of information to memorize and you give it back. This is identifying problems and investing yourself enough in the problem that you keep coming back.”

click to enlarge Cyber Tech Studios isn’t about games; it’s about problem-solving. - BRYAN GROSSMAN
  • Bryan Grossman
  • Cyber Tech Studios isn’t about games; it’s about problem-solving.

It’s a common misconception among students, Wybrant said, that the class is all recreation.

“Some students will sign up because they think we play games all the time,” he said. “They don’t understand how complicated and complex it is to actually make them.”

In what is perhaps its most ambitious project, Cyber Tech Studios is working on a virtual reality experience that could literally take new Palmer grads halfway around the world.

When Wybrant received the Teacher of the Year award, he was one of 50 educators honored, one from each state — but United States territories also recognize outstanding educators. 

Gerard van Gils was named Teacher of the Year for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the chain that includes Guam and Saipan, the site of a notable World War II battle. 

Wybrant met van Gils and the two have had conversations about connecting kids in Saipan with Palmer students.

Around the same time, students from North Carolina’s East Carolina University had gone to Saipan to do underwater scans of wreckage sites. 

“I was talking to this lady [at the university] about how I have these really cool kids and they know how to do some pretty nifty stuff. ‘You should let us use your models and we’ll try and make some experiences that will highlight the work you’re doing and get kids connected to their past,’” Wybrant said. “Then I came back and got grants so that we would be able to get some equipment so these kids would be able to not only do that work, but — and this is about where we’re at in the project — they’re going to spend the next month, month and a half, creating video tutorials about how to make a virtual reality museum and how to do 3D modeling. … 

“What I’m hoping to do … is actually take some of the core group of that project to Saipan with me to do boots-on-the-ground work out there, where they would teach and train while on the island.”

Wybrant said most people don’t make it to Saipan, “but can still benefit from learning about the history of its sites. That’s where we came in. We started to make a VR museum and [augmented reality] handbooks to give [the university’s] content more life.”

In addition, Palmer graduates are planning to team with youths on Saipan who will return to Colorado and attend UCCS next year. The American students will help them acclimate, Wybrant said.

“We will help those kids come back and establish themselves here and start to build a pipeline,” he said. “I’d like to build a solid connection over the next couple years.”

As long as there have been internships, students have been able to partner with industry. But students creating marketable products for businesses is a somewhat newer idea. Wybrant said he would like to see more of that innovation come out of Cyber Tech Studios.

“Some of the kids who are working on [the Saipan project] are working at Sonic [Drive-In] right now,” Wybrant said. “And it’s not that Sonic is bad. There are kids who need that job. The kids I have don’t need that job, they need to be making augmented reality handbooks and be getting paid what you get paid for making augmented reality handbooks.”

Gullixson said he’d like to see businesses and the startup community provide a platform for the students “and create a pathway through the [Foundation for District 11] to create a funding pool for these student projects.

“Peak Startup could be driving it,” Gullixson added. “The goal is to reach out and engage each high school in D-11. If it works, we could take it community-wide and take nominees from every high school.”

Gullixson said he’d be willing to coach students on the art of the pitch.

“What’s great about the process of going into Pitch Night is we’ll duplicate [Peak Startup’s] existing process of coaching,” he said. “I’m going to commit time with classes to talk about, ‘How do you walk in to a Pitch Night and what kind of mindset is that? How do you speak to a community or a business owner?’” 

At the time of this writing, Gullixson said some of the Studios’ students were slated to kick off a Pitch Night April 25.

“And Natasha and I hope to create student Pitch Night for Startup Week in September,” he said.

Main said she would like to see collaboration between Peak Startup and public school students to create “onramps” to entrepreneurialism.

“We have these kids falling in love with amazing problems tying into their coursework or their futures — it’s so neat to see what the solutions can be.

“For me, it’s important to break the mold of who the stereotypical startup founder is,” she added. “It could be a 15-year-old girl from a Palmer High School coding class.”

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

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