Oct 12 2006

Fairfax School Program Gives Students Real Life Film Experience

High school students learn digital design—and professionalism— while helping local businesses and nonprofit organization

It's not every day that high school students get the chance to work on real-world commercial projects in a classroom setting. But at Fairfax High School Academy for Communications and the Arts in Fairfax, Va., such opportunities are increasingly becoming part of the curriculum.

Through a classroom venture known as DIGS (Digital Imaging and Graphics Studio), students enrolled in the academy’s Graphic Imaging and Design program work on projects with local businesses. The studio is sponsored by the county’s Foundation for the Advancement of Technical Education, a nonprofit organization chartered to promote technical education in schools.

Students work on DIGS projects with their teacher after school, and they often receive monetary awards in addition to course credit for their efforts. However, students who participate in these projects usually find that the firsthand knowledge gained from the experience is the best reward. 

“Learning what it’s like to work in the design field—with all of the responsibilities that go with that—was really valuable,” says senior Sophocles Grafas, who acted as lead designer and technical compiler on a DIGS project. “It was an amazing experience.”

Grafas is one of 10 students who participated in the school’s most recent DIGS project: Designing a multimedia education kit for the Alliance for Consumer Education (ACE) in Washington, D.C.

Contributing to a Cause

ACE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting awareness of health and safety issues in the home, commissioned students in the Graphic Imaging and Design program to create an original logo, poster and interactive CD-ROM that could be used to educate parents and caregivers nationwide about the dangers of inhalant abuse. Particularly widespread among teens, the practice of inhaling fumes from household products such as glue, paint, aerosols and chemical solvents has led to countless incidents of illness, injury and even death. According to ACE, one in five American children between the ages of 12 and 17 has experimented with this practice, also known as “sniffing” or “huffing.”

“We knew we wanted to target parents because going to teens directly would only make them realize that certain household products could be abused in this way,” says Colleen Creighton, ACE’s education program coordinator.

ACE learned of Fairfax High School’s DIGS program from another nonprofit agency that had worked with the students on a similar multimedia design project during the 2001-02 school year. ACE’s coordinator visited the school and met with DIGS students before drawing up a contract. “We thought, ‘Who better to explain the problem and take the message to parents than kids themselves?’” Creighton says.

Taking four months to complete, the design project involved numerous brainstorming sessions to identify the most effective ways to explain inhalant abuse to adults and how parents and caregivers should address the problem. In addition to challenging the students to design a poster and logo that clearly and effectively conveyed ACE’s message, the team was asked to create an interactive CD-ROM that used a Web-based interface and incorporated animation, video and sound.

The students—eight seniors and two juniors—brought a diverse set of computer technology and design skills to the project. They also shared a common passion for educating parents and peers on a topic that had the potential to affect their own lives.

“Just knowing that a person could see this kit and decide not to abuse a product makes us feel good, because it means we may have saved a life by contributing to this project,” says senior Bobby Saini, who created the design for the poster and CD label.

Senior and digital designer Vlad Gorshkov agrees. “This project allowed us to spread the word [about inhalant abuse] through our work,” he says. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Besides collaborating as a group on key concepts and representation, each student was assigned a definitive role in the production of the educational kit. Students worked individually on their job assignments, sometimes staying after school for three to five hours at a time.

In the process, they honed their skills in animation and design software; 3D modeling tools; a variey of programming languages and cross-platform file formats; and peripherals such as digital cameras, digital video camcorders, external hard drives and scanners. Students also developed professional skills, such as communicating via e-mail and working as part of a group, learning to integrate feedback and meet client benchmarks, enhancing creative problem-solving skills and overcoming procrastination.

“This project helped me learn the value of teamwork and working professionally on a deadline,” says senior Christian Loza.

The students touched base with their fellow teammates during the day, but had to coordinate getting together to collaborate after school hours to complete the bulk of their assignment. “It was a great lesson for them in communicating” and learning to work independently, says Fairfax High School’s Gwen Plummer, career experience specialist.

In addition to instilling the value of teamwork, the project helped the students gain a variety of marketable career skills, adds Plummer, who came to Fairfax with 20 years of experience directing career development and co-op programs for college students. Learning to translate tech-savvy skills into business-savvy ones will assist the students in future career situations, she says.

“It’s one thing for students to be able to complete an artistic project to their satisfaction,” Plummer says, “but quite another to learn to complete a project to a client's satisfaction.”

The Rewards of Recognition

As part of a pilot education plan, ACE has already begun distributing the multimedia kit to high school guidance departments and to community agencies specializing in substance abuse throughout six states: Alabama, Alaska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. The interactive CD-ROM, poster and accompanying training manual are intended to be used in informational sessions for parents on the prevalence, dangers and signs of inhalant abuse. ACE hopes to distribute the kit to an additional 25 states by the fall of 2004.

To date, feedback from the schools using the kit has been overwhelmingly positive. “The students did an amazing job,” Creighton says. “We’ve received close to 50 requests for the kit from counselors just in the state of Virginia.” Creighton notes that ACE was also impressed with the students’ professionalism. “The quality [of their work] was high, and the students were very accommodating” when it came to ACE’s requests for revisions, she says.

In fact, ACE was so pleased with the finished project that it decided to incorporate the student design program into its public relations campaign promoting the educational kit. In March, the students were recognized for their work at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The event, which coincided with the kickoff of ACE’s national awareness campaign for inhalant abuse, drew local television and newspaper coverage.

“I will always remember this experience because it’s something that most people only experience as adults,” Loza says.

Additional reporting by Claudia Graziano

The ACE Inhalant Abuse Prevention multimedia presentation is best viewed with a high-speed online connection at www.fatefacts.org/ace.

Staying Motivated

It’s often said that experience is life’s greatest teacher, and when it comes to learning a profession like multimedia design, that wisdom holds especially true.

While my students knew the tremendous value of the work they were doing for the Alliance for Consumer Education, it wasn’t always easy for them to stay motivated. Just as adults need a variety of incentives to complete work tasks on time, so do kids. For example, when the students faced frustrating rough spots on the project, graphic design professionals were called in as volunteers to bring new perspectives and energy. The students were also given gift certificates in small amounts to spend on computer accessories and software.

Operating in ways that mirrored the “real world” work environment helped students stick to the task at hand. The team established a leader to act as a central point of contact for project support and feedback. To track their hours, students kept time sheets. They also elected to divide the monetary award they received for their work based on the amount of time each team member spent on the project. That way, students could feel they would be rewarded for working hard. Finally, if an individual’s waning motivation started to affect fellow team members, that student’s project responsibilities could be taken away.

Making sure students had the right equipment was also key to maintaining a high level of enthusiasm and productivity. The students used Intel Pentium 5 PCs, which gave them the power needed to run several software programs at once, as well as to render animation movies and to handle large file transfers.

As a teacher, it was my responsibility to manage the students and make sure they stayed on schedule. Ultimately, though, it was my students’ efforts that propelled them toward the finish line, receiving national recognition for their work and the satisfaction of knowing they’ve had a direct impact on the communities around them.

Roxanne Kaylor is an instructor at Fairfax High School Academy for Communications and the Arts in Fairfax, Va. She teaches hands-on curriculum in electronic design and production, digital imaging and illustration software, color management, 3-D animation, digital video, sound editing and other multimedia courses. Kaylor is the co-director of the Digital Imaging Graphic Studio, a student-run business that brings real-world experience into the classroom.