Digital arts minor gains popularity

by Margot Byrne | 3/6/13 11:00pm

As part of a project on sustainability, digital arts students created animations of a polar bear, whose appearance of health and happiness is contingent upon the amount of electricity being used, and projected these animations on monitors throughout campus. As the building's energy usage increases, the bear becomes distressed, but as it decreases, the bear is free to rest and play in peace. "Greenlite Dartmouth," which helps students use less energy in the dorms through real-time feedback, is just one of the many creative pursuits that digital arts minor students have worked on recently.

The minor has grown over the past years to include not only quantitative pursuits, but creative and interactive projects across a wide variety of disciplines.

"The minor, for the most part, has been a word-of-mouth program thus far, but we've been expanding," said Lorie Loeb, a computer science professor and director of the digital arts minor.

The minor was developed in 2007 by the computer science department, in conjunction with the film studies, psychological and brain sciences, studio art and theater departments. An introductory course teaches

students the basic programming skills necessary for creating interactive presentations, and students are able to choose from Introduction to Programming and Computation, Programming for Interactive Digital Arts or Concepts in Computing and learn proficiency in visually representing and manipulating colors, shapes, images, motion and video.

"The minor requires just one computer science programming class, but I think it should be a prereq for all disciplines given how ubiquitous programming is becoming," said Tim Tregubov '11, the systems administrator for the computer science department.

The digital arts minor encompasses three core classes, including 3D Digital Modeling, where students use the software program Maya to learn modeling techniques and effects in shading and lighting. The final project asks students to design a true-to-life room.

"It seems pretty basic, but our class got really creative," Hannah Williams '14 said. "Some people made dorm rooms and living rooms, others prison cells. It's a lot of fun but so incredibly time consuming. You can spend hours on the computer without even realizing it."

The second required course focuses on animation and the fundamentals of motion. An introductory exercise asks students to analyze the motion of a falling ball. Students sketch the ball's trajectory, film and photograph the process and then translate these images to a computer to generate an animation. This allows students to understand more realistically the concepts of time, space and weight, Kayla Gilbert '12 said.

Students also closely study human facial and full-body movements to more naturally render their animations. Students can often be seen standing up, running in place or bending limbs to examine their own movements.

"Understanding individual gestures and poses and being able to represent them visually is essential for making a character come to life," digital arts apprentice Nate Seymour '12 said.

The third core course develops students' skills in two and three-dimensional animation, digital installations and mobile media. The course culminates with a short film, animation or video game created from scratch, Seymour said.

In addition to projects within the course, Loeb said she encourages students to participate in outside digital projects with real-world applications.

These projects are often interdisciplinary, as departments increasingly turn to digital arts to conceptualize new programs.

"It is inspiring and energizing to work on something that you are excited about with cool people through the early hours of the morning, heading out for breakfast at Lou's and then coming back to show off what you created," Tregubov said.

One project, "The D-Planner," was designed to help students more actively plan and explore their term options. Students drag buttons reading "off-term," "study abroad" and "on campus" to various boxes in order to visualize their academic calendar.

Loeb, Seymour and Gilbert, along with a team of 11 other designers, are currently developing a program called "DiscoverU," which helps Native American high school students navigate the college application process.

Loeb was asked by the Native American studies department to create both a web and mobile application that could serve as a virtual college counselor.

"DiscoverU" will provide admissions information to students, as well as keep track of their grades, test scores and extracurricular activities.

In addition to computer and technology classes, digital arts minors are required to take two additional courses in film studies, studio art, theater or psychology.

Experience in these fields is valuable as it helps inform a student's digital arts skills, Loeb said. For example, studio art challenges creativity and artistic abilities while theater allows students to practice real-life gestures and expressions.

While still in its infancy, the digital arts minor is continually developing and integrating other disciplines to make programs more accessible, Loeb said.

The divide between computers and aesthetics has gotten closer over the years, as people now desire to build not just functional but also "beautiful and meaningful" apps, she said. Loeb hopes that the increased importance of digital arts will translate to the campus community.

"I would love the opportunity to expand the digital arts minor to a major, especially given the amount of student interest, but we'll see," Loeb said.