Video Game Helps Students Training as Technicians

A high school student has created Launch Site, which will train high-school students and graduates as entry-level technicians for simulation companies.

by Annie Martin, Orlando Sentinel / November 24, 2015 0

(TNS) -- Letters zoomed across Connor Adams' screen as he used his keyboard to move a spaceship up and down.

The computer game's objective is simple: Destroy the letters that aren't formed correctly and leave the ones that are right. The game is easy for most people but a challenge for people with dyslexia, a disorder that hinders the ability to read and write.

Connor, 17, created the game for a class at Mid Florida Tech, which this year has created a program at a facility called Launch Site that will train high-school students and graduates as entry-level technicians for simulation companies. The students focus on building educational games, and eventually they'll design virtual field trips for other students.

Though it includes building games, and no programming experience is required, an interest in playing computer games doesn't mean a student is a good fit, said Alan Lynch, who leads the program at the center run by Orange County Public Schools.

"Going home and playing a video game isn't going to help you," he said.

The Oak Ridge Road facility includes a series of computer labs and two motion-capture labs where students can model movements such as walking so they can create realistic characters on screen.

High-school students spend three hours a day at the yearlong program and spend the rest of the day at their home schools. They will take two years to complete the program. Adults spend the full day at the technical center and complete the program in a year. Students can choose to pursue a programming or visual-design track.

This year, 80 high-school students and seven adults are enrolled. Adults typically pay $2.88 per hour for Mid Florida Tech programs. The high-school students in the dual-enrollment program don't pay tuition.

Lynch, who visited Orange high schools last year to recruit students, estimates a starting salary of about $40,000 for people who complete the program, based on government statistics and local employment surveys.

He's looking for problem solvers and budding artists who can create lifelike experiences. Students who love crossword puzzles and logic games tend to make good programmers, while their peers who spend their lunch periods sketching in their notebooks might be suited for visual design.

Lynch and the students say programming is a lot of work. Connor said he wrote thousands of lines of code using the C# language to create his game. Learning to code was challenging, he said, but fun.

"I was curious," he said. "I didn't want to stop."

For Andrew Fowler, the program seemed like a natural fit. The 18-year-old said he's been drawn to computers since he was a child. He said the simulation field is "intriguing" to him.

"It's being able to use technology to educate ourselves," said Fowler, who graduated from Cypress Creek High last spring.

Aside from games, simulation is used to train people in a wide range of fields, said Cap Jadonath, assistant director of Mid Florida Tech. The military can test the effects of a weapon before it is used. Truck drivers can practice maneuvers before they hit the highway.

Surgeons can hone their skills before they cut into their patients. Jadonath described simulation as "a painless way of playing a 'what-if' game."

Orlando is a natural place to create simulation programs because of the proximity to companies that could hire graduates. Central Florida's simulation industry has an estimated value of $4.8 billion to $5.2 billion.

"We really try to customize [the programming] to our local industry needs," said Mike Armbruster, the school district's senior executive director for career and technical education. "Our goal is the work force."

The National Training and Simulation Association website lists several Central Florida companies as members. The group's annual conference is held in the Orlando area each December. Additionally, the Mid Florida Tech program could serve as a pipeline for the University of Central Florida's Institute for Simulation and Training, which focuses on human-centered modeling and simulation technology. Winter Park-based Full Sail University offers a program similar to Mid Florida Tech's.

Aside from receiving a technical certificate at the end of the Mid Florida Tech program, Lynch said he's seen students "blossom" this year because they're around like-minded peers for the first time.

Connor spends part of his day at Olympia High, where he takes Advanced Placement courses. But he said his time at the tech center is the highlight of his day.

Next year, he'll study management information systems at the University of Alabama. He hopes to work in the educational-gaming industry someday. A longtime fan of video games, Connor said using programming to help people learn is rewarding.

Connor's girlfriend, who has dyslexia, inspired him to build the letter game for class. She helped him identify letters that often trip her up, such as a backward "N."

"It motivates you to keep working," he said.

©2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.