Right around the time Chris Ault received his fourth student zombie-game proposal in as many semesters, he realized something needed to change about a class he teaches at TCNJ called IMM 280: Design Perspectives for Interactive Multimedia.
“There are a lot of successful zombie games out there, and that may be a good way to blow off some steam,” he says now, “but I was looking around thinking, ‘What if we could use our skills and the technology to put some good out there in the world and help some people with some real problems?’”
Ault, who is chair and an associate professor in TCNJ’s interactive multimedia (IMM) department, immediately thought of a community close to the College’s heart. “Here we are at what used to be Trenton State College and just down the road from us are these businesses and city offices and community-service organizations and just plain citizens who are really trying to do good stuff but are facing some tough problems,” Ault says. “I told my class: Think about the stuff you like doing and are good at doing—creating websites, mobile apps, animation, or even video games. Let’s still do that stuff, but let’s do it in such a way that it can help someone.”
For three semesters now, Ault’s students have been doing just that. Taylor Jez, a junior IMM major, took the new, zombie-free Design Perspectives last fall. “It was refreshing,” Jez says, largely because the format and expectations were so different from any class he’d taken before. Ault first split the 20 students into four groups, then assigned each team a local client. He paired Jez’s group with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK). Much as they would in a professional design studio, the students met with their client, batted around ideas, and eventually settled on a project that would best address their client’s needs.
Early in the process, TASK representatives mentioned their concerns about the organization’s identity. The “Soup” in its name tended to confuse outsiders, who assumed the organization was good for little more than a warm meal—most likely one that came in a bowl. But there’s a lot more to it than that, Ault says. The facility has art studios, classrooms, areas for kids to play, and a big kitchen that serves up far more than soup.
After a number of brainstorming sessions, Jez’s group had a solution: They would design a digital, interactive tour so that people could virtually cruise through the facility, looking into rooms and peering around corners, to discover how much is actually available there. The TASK employees were reportedly thrilled with the results.
Other IMM 280 students have developed proposals for interactive art installations around Trenton and a plan to revitalize the Downtown Farmers Market through a website, mobile app, and social media. What Ault calls a “more quirky, artistic” idea involved placing electronic window boxes in downtown storefronts and filling them with artificial flowers that light up at night. “It’s an unusual idea that still gets at this widespread problem of keeping people in Trenton after 5 p.m.,” he says.
“The value of this class,” Ault adds, “is that the students get this real-world experience. They get to design within real-world constraints and propose solutions to real problems, rather than hypothetical ones. I’ve discovered that my students really raise their games and are more careful about the decisions they’re making and the work they’re doing if they’re doing it for someone else, rather than as a vanity project.”
The significance of helping local non-profits and struggling communities is especially profound, Ault says—and something that’s sweeping both the IMM department at TCNJ and the larger tech community. “There’s a real recognition across our curriculum that the technology itself isn’t so important, it’s how you can use it to help and empower people,” he says. “There is also this growing awareness in the tech industry of the potential for social change and empowerment through technology.”
IMM 280 fits snugly into TCNJ’s larger mission of community-engaged learning. Each year, more than 70 classes incorporate a community-based need or project into their curricula, according to Patrick Donohue, assistant provost of community engaged learning programs and partnerships.
“We want to produce students who are not only excellent in their careers but also strong and engaged citizens,” Donohue says. “If we only pop in for a one-day service project, our students never get beyond painting the walls and serving soup. These upper-level classes like Chris’s allow our juniors and seniors to do some serious work on very significant issues, and often with populations that are otherwise hard to reach.”
The only downside is that a semester typically isn’t enough time to create a proposal and actually execute it. Ault and Donohue are now brainstorming ways for students who take the class to continue working on their projects through academic internships or stipends. And if Ault has his way, the passion for community engagement he ignites in students won’t end there.
“Even though many of my students are originally from New Jersey, very few of them have been to Trenton until I make it an assignment in my class,” he says. “When they go, their eyes are opened. I hope they will start to look at Trenton as a place where they would want to live and work after graduation—a place where they can bring some of their technology skills and innovative ideas to help our neighbors down the road.”