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CERTIFIABLY CAPTIVATING

A new Weeki Wachee High tech track teaches coveted skills while keeping teens engaged.

Pull up a mental picture of a typical classroom. Add PCs or Macs to each tabletop. Turn down the glaring overhead lights and add bluish gooseneck lamps. Turn on some popular music softly. Oh, and place a popcorn machine against one of the walls.

The image is technology teacher Chris Clifford's gaming classroom at Weeki Wachee High School. The new program, Video Game Design and Simulation, is the beginning of what will be a four-year option for students who want to become proficient in computer programs.

All grade levels fill Clifford's five classes, which range from 46 to 50 students. Freshmen will reap the greatest benefits, since they will be able to take more advanced courses as they head toward graduation.

This year, the students are studying Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Outlook and Flash programs. The students have the opportunity to earn Microsoft specialist certification in the first three. Using the programs to create games will keep the students interested and engaged, Clifford reasons.

"Students who want to go into the industry to produce video games need to know these fundamental, core ideas," he said.

To raise proficiency in Word, Clifford encourages his charges to create their games' screenplays and describe their ideas and characters. They learn PowerPoint as they produce mockups of how a game will look. They also use the program to present their prototypes to potential investors.

Outlook, Clifford said, is the "method by which they become very good at time management."

Next year, during Video Design and Simulation II, the students will move on to the Dreamweaver Web design program and learn how to create two-dimensional gaming. In the third year, they will work in Photoshop and be introduced to the three-dimensional user interfaces.

During the fourth year, the plan is for students to have advanced to the 3-D Max animation application to produce "high-end features rich in 3-D environment," Clifford said. The classroom has a 3-D printer.

"We offer skills that are recognized worldwide by worldwide companies," Clifford said. "These certifications can be leveraged on these students' resumes like no other certifications. Some colleges offer credits to these students to help them segue into postsecondary education."

There's a reason for the popcorn machine, by the way.

"We do popcorn when they get their first certification," Clifford said.

With one certification, a student is allowed one serving of popcorn a week for the rest of the school year. With a second certification, that increases to twice a week. A third certification means unlimited popcorn.

There's more.

"Certifications are hung on the wall, and that student is a specialist and that person becomes a peer tutor," Clifford said.

Stickers are added to certificates with each student tutored. At the end of the year, students get as many chances in a drawing for prizes as they have certifications and tutoring stickers.

Those in the classes say they signed up for a variety of reasons.

Sophomore Zandreea Marasciullo's reason is straightforward.

"I want to be a game designer," the 15-year-old said. "I want to go to Full Sail (University) and take the courses for game design. (This is) preparing me for what's to come."

Full Sail is a Winter Park school that focuses on entertainment, media and the arts.

Sophomore James Shaw, 15, isn't necessarily looking for a career in designing games. He had other reasons to be in the class.

"You know, it was always on my bucket list to be tech savvy," he said. "I just want to know things. It's more than a future job thing. It's more like discovering everything."

Senior Evan Chapman, 17, is interested in producing games.

"I have dabbled in some game stuff at my house, and I wanted to get the certification," he said, which he pointed out are free in high school.

"It also gives information on other programs, too, which go beyond gaming. I came for gaming, but am learning other skills for programs that can be used in almost any career."

He's still not sure about what he'll do after graduation. He said he may go to Full Sail "for a possible step into gaming," or enter the Air Force as an aerospace engineer.

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