Tuscarawas computer-aided design program combines hard work with entertainment

Kent State Tuscarawas’ Computer Design, Animation and Game Design Engineering Technology degree was listed on todaygamenews.com as one of the top 300 schools in the U.S. to study game design. Graduates from the program have had career opportunities that make the degree increasingly popular among incoming freshmen.

Kamal Bichara, director of the Tuscarawas campus Engineering Technology programs, said he tries to show his students that computer engineering can be fun.

“It’s the type of field where you almost feel guilty to get paid,” Bichara said.

The associate’s degree started at the Tuscarawas campus in 1995, and it was expanded to include a bachelor’s degree two years later. Now, Tuscarawas professors travel to the Kent and Stark campuses so students can get an identical educational experience.

Tuscarawas professor Srini Vas Patibandla said the students in the program know there is a significant difference between being entertained and creating the entertainment.

“It is an interest that usually originates from playing video games or working with computer graphics,” Patibandla said. “But when they get into the curriculum, students quickly realize there’s a big difference between playing a game and developing a game.”

In the program, students use computer applications to generate a multitude of images, including architectural drawings, illustrations, graphics and technical designs. While professors have many applications to assist their lessons, Bichara said “Second Life” has become an invaluable tool in the classroom. “Second Life” is an online video game where users can create avatars and interact with one another on virtual islands. In the game, the Tuscarawas Science and Technology building has its own replica, where students can tour the facilities without ever leaving their computer chair.

Bichara said he allows students to help design an island in the game, as long as all of their ideas are original, a characteristic he expects in all assignments.

“It has to be totally yours,” he said. “The scripting. The story. Everything. After two or three years of this, they become very creative.”

David Schlabach, senior computer aided drafting major, said he found his calling when he switched majors and entered the program.

“Completing my bachelor’s has been a journey that’s taken years,” Schlabach said. “But I’m happy where I’ve ended up.”

While Schlabach is not certain of how he wants to use his talents after he graduates in May, students who graduate from this program have become major players in the world of computer technology and entertainment.

“We’ve had graduates who have worked with a number of movie production companies like Disney and Pixar, while others choose to develop 3-D models for local manufacturers,” Bichara said.

Patibandla said despite the down economy, graduates from the program are likely to still find a job in their field.

“The gaming industry is one of the few industries that didn’t take a large hit,” Patibandla said. “As a matter of fact, it, for the most part, plateaued in a worse case. Some aspects of it actually grew during this lengthy period.”

Matt Shonkwiler graduated from the program with a bachelor’s degree in 2005. After getting job offers from other Buena Vista and Warner Brothers, Shonkwiler joined the Kentucky company Borders Unlimited.

“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now without the Tuscarawas program,” Shonkwiler said.

Shonkwiler was a member of the still-active campus club Imagineers. The computer-aided design club took several trips while he was a member, including a tour of Pixar Studios with “Up” director Bob Peterson.

Shonkwiler said the club trips are just some examples of the support the Tuscarawas faculty gives to students in the program.

“The great part about the Tuscarawas campus is if you’ve got a dream and the ambition to pursue it, you’ll be embraced by the faculty,” Shonkwiler said.

Contact Alison Ritchie at [email protected] and Issac Profitt at [email protected].