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Shawnee State's not playing games with focus on interactive tech

Shawnee State University recently hosted a video game conference. Photos Ben French
Shawnee State University recently hosted a video game conference. Photos Ben French

The distance between the Ohio River Valley and California's Silicon Valley is getting smaller all the time.

That's because Shawnee State University, in Portsmouth the Scioto County riverside town with a neighborhood known as Boneyfiddle and a downtown spot honoring Roy Rogers -- is closing the gap.

"We have world class capabilities in this area now," Bill Sams, a veteran of the semiconductor industry who's now program director of the Appalachian Ohio WIRED Project, said during a luncheon address to guests at the campus recently.

The occasion was SSU's seventh annual conference for interactive digital technology. This year's theme: "Capturing Imagination," which tied in with dedication of the university's new motion capture laboratory.

The conference, which draws some of the biggest names in interactive technology, offers topics so forward-reaching they make the Jetsons seem positively primitive -- cyber ethics, virtual worlds applications for business and education, and how to finance your own interactive digital technology startup.

Keynote speaker Sibley Verbeck is a researcher in advanced computational linguistic and statistical techniques for analyzing audio, video and text. Verbeck, as well as other experts present, encouraged participants to ask questions and explore far reaches of the digital horizon.

The comfort level of low-key, high-tech leader like Verbeck is understandable, considering the resources Shawnee State has devoted to preparing "people as talented and good as any in the world" who can "bring jobs and money back to the region."

Statistically, Scioto County lags in some areas key to employment and economic growth. Nearly three in four Scioto Countians have no more than a high school diploma; only about 10 percent age 25 or older have a bachelor's degree or higher education, according to U.S. Census data. (Statewide, 83 percent of Ohioans are high school graduates and 21 percent of them have a bachelor degree or higher.)

The 2007 median household income in the county was $33,044, below the statewide mean of $46,645. Slightly more than 20 percent of the county's population is below the poverty level, vs. 13 percnet of the state's population.

Enter Shawnee State, which has found a calling in preparing the region for Ohio's new economy. For example, steps are being taken for collaboration between American Electric Power to use Shawnee State for virtual training programs about power plant operation, Sams said during his lunch talk.

While the largest university's largest degree program is psychology, its fastest-growing, according to Communications Director Elizabeth Blevins, is the B.S. in digital simulation and gaming . Graduates will be able to work as game/simulation programmers, designers, and architects.

The idea for the interactive digital technology program came from two now-former faculty members about seven years ago, says David Todt, provost and vice president for academic affairs. "They saw the potential...They knew it was an emerging field."

Todt said many young people pursue this program because they're dedicated game-players, and their focus is on learning how to create the kinds of products they've played. Gradually, they see how interactive technology has applications in, for example, health care and the armed services.

"They find out it's a bigger world out there than they realize. Opportunities are opened up when the students get here."

This program combines computer science, computer programming, and 2D/3D graphics programming with additional classes in arts, design, math and physics.

"The curriculum is designed to support a team-based, open-ended project environment for engineering technology students. The strong computer science, computer engineering, and programming components of the degree allow a graduate to obtain a career in many non-game related fields of computing," the course description states.

Shawnee State's rise as a bastion of high-tech education speaks to how far the 4,300-student institution has come since its establishment in 1986. But it has distinguished itself in other ways as well.

Its attractive and immaculate, 52-acre campus is nestled between the river and downtown Portsmouth; many of its buildings have generous views of the nearby Kentucky hillsides. Landscaping enhances the public spaces.

Clean lines of the older brick buildings blend well with the newer and newest ones. The University Center is being renovated and expanded from 39,000 square feet to more than 89,000 square feet. That project also involves implementation of a geothermal energy management. Besides adding office and meeting spaces for a variety of services, the current dining and food service areas will be converted into the Shawnee State Bookstore, operated by Barnes & Noble. The whole project costs $15 million is expected to be completed next year.

Other highlights of the campus: a digital planetarium, a 1,139-seat theater and an athletic center that includes a dance classroom, and a junior Olympic-size swimming pool.

According to its mission statement, Shawnee State "prepares students for the changing needs of business, industry, education, and society through its diversified degree programs." Indeed, the school offers associate, bachelor and master degrees in a range of subjects; classes for teacher licensure, and four certificate programs.

And how's this for addressing employment needs: the Associate of Applied Science in Plastics Engineering Technology. Graduates enter positions dealing with injection molding, extrusion, blow molding, thermoforming, structural and nonstructural foams, rotomolding, supervision, industrial statistics, mold preparation, setup, quality control, production control, and fabrication.

The BA in International Relations "aims to provide its graduates with the conceptual and substantive tools necessary to function more advantageously and effectively in a 'shrinking' world." The Master of Education with a concentration in Curriculum & Instruction doesn't intend to simply sending its alums into the world to be academic drones. No, its stated intent is "to develop educational professionals who will be change agents in their schools and communities through the implementation of evidence-based teaching practices and the demonstration of strong, yet collaborative, leadership qualities."

Change agents. It's apparent that both university and students have taken that concept to heart.

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