Cogswell College Dean Jerome Solomon on Fostering Students and SIGGRAPH 2014

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Jerome Solomon, Dean of Cogswell College and Director of the 2014 SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival, shares with us his experiences bridging the gap between academia and the progressive technology industry. In this interview from SIGGRAPH 2014, Jerome and Steve Waskul discuss how Cogswell College is fostering the next generation of game-developers, audio engineers, production professionals and artists. Jerome also walks us through the Festival selection process and some of his favorite entries.

Mr. Waskul opens the discussion with a simple question, “So what’s new?” Having accepted the position of Dean at Cogswell College this past year, a lot is new for Jerome. The introduction of project-based learning initiatives across all programs is just one example. In the past, Cogswell students worked on a single large long-term project focused within their discipline. Now, students bring their skills to larger projects where they collaborate with other students with different skill sets. That way, students benefit from teamwork and they end up with results larger than a single discipline project would allow. This approach also diversifies students’ portfolios, contributing to their future success.

Currently there are about 450 students at Cogswell College but Jerome says they will have another 250 joining in the fall. This rapid growth is because the school is “uniquely positioned” as what you might consider a “deep arts school and deep engineering school.” Jerome explains that classes range from traditional painting to Maya 3D modeling, rigging and lighting classes on one hand to programming classes featuring Python, C++, advanced C++ on the other. With this mix available Cogswell students have the flexibility to develop both the right and left halves of their brains.

With so many possibilities, Steve asks if the students have the option to design their own curriculums. Although there are specified learning tracks, Jerome replies, there is a lot of flexibility in choosing electives. In fact, he continues, Cogswell students have so many options to take “cool” classes that it can be easy to lose focus on graduating – but that’s a “fun challenge” to have. Another challenge Cogswell faces is a curriculum that needs constant updating. With input from the faculty and Industry Advisory Boards, including members like the Director of Google Games and reps from major studios like DreamWorks, Cogswell is able to get great current industry input which is used to help develop the school’s curriculum.

The conversation then turns toward employment prospects for their graduates. Jerome’s goal is to provide his students with the kind of opportunities that will allow them to be successful in finding and securing a job. Projects that necessitate teamwork are at the top of his list, as well as forcing students to speak in front of their peers because this helps students grow and mature. Steve is in complete agreement, commenting that students really need the opportunity to interact with others because it is a really important skill that a lot of “young folks” today don’t have. Jerome concurs and points out that while many students do have jobs and gain valuable experience in them during school, it is often much different to be in the corporate world or to work with production professionals in the industry. That’s why Cogswell has developed additional programs like their career services program. The goal of this program is to help students find opportunities that will help them develop via internships that are built into the academic program so students can get class credit for working.

With a steadily growing student body, providing opportunities for student development is a big focus at Cogswell. This not only means increasing the faculty, the availability to resources, internship prospects and career counseling services, but also paying attention to the small things that really impact how the school functions, like adding adequate WiFi to meet student and faculty needs.

The conversation next turns to Jerome’s work as Director of the SIGGRAPH 2014 Computer Animation Festival. Jerome admits that it has kept him very busy over the last two years. His enthusiasm for the festival is very apparent as he tells Steve about the US Premier of the Festival to be held at Cogswell this year. The process of selecting pieces for the festival, Jerome continues, was quite extensive. 490 pieces were submitted and screened down to 160. From there the animations were deliberated by a panel of experts and finally whittled down by Jerome to the final 20 showcased at SIGGRAPH in the Computer Animation Festival.

At this point Steve inquires about the “jazzy” trailer they’ve created this year for the Computer Animation Festival. Wanting to do something a bit out of the box, Jerome recounts how he procured some fantastic jazz music from an acquaintance who composes for Lucasfilm Ltd. For those folks who didn’t get to see the screening, Steve wonders, is it available at the show or online? Yes, Jerome responds, the trailer is available for purchase on the SVR, or SIGGRAPH Video Review. The review is essentially a USB stick containing almost all of the work shown in the electronic theater.

Considering the high caliber of the work displayed at SIGGRAPH this year, Steve must know which is Jerome’s favorite. Without much hesitation, Jerome names a piece called “Box,” presented by Bot & Dolly. What makes “Box” so appealing is that it visually demonstrates their technology by utilizing high-speed welding robots to create unique projection mapping techniques. As one might have guessed, “Box” won Best of Show. Another favorite, Jerome discloses, is a piece called “Wrapped” that won the Best Student award. Jerome recalls how many people had asked him which studio had produced it, and were amazed to hear that it was the work of a student. “As an educator, for me, that was great to see,” Jerome beams.

As their discussion winds down, Steve and Jerome return to the success of the students who will one day become leaders in this industry. “It makes a big difference having the right person educating you when it comes to that right?” Jerome completely agrees; the right people, the right tools, and even being around peers with similar interests make a huge difference. His school is like a “fish tank of beautiful fish,” Jerome explains. Many of their students who previously found themselves as the only ones with these specific interests have now come into a world where suddenly everyone thinks like they do.

The great thing about the technology and the applications that are available now, Steve interjects, is that “3 or 4 of these beautiful fish” can form their own start-up after graduating for a much smaller principle investment. This happens even before they graduate, Jerome rejoins. Just recently a group of students approached him with a video game concept, asking if they could utilize the school’s resources to make it happen. “You’re not going to learn everything in a classroom,” Jerome continues, sharing his desire to make Cogswell an “incubator” for his students’ growth. At this point Steve inquires if any of his students are at SIGGRAPH. Fortunately, 5 of his students were able to make the trip. Jerome is certain they will bring their experience back to school, as well as their increased knowledge of the opportunities in existence beyond school. As for Jerome, he plans on returning to SIGGRAPH in 2017 after a much needed break. A “labor of love,” directing the Computer Animation Festival has not only been a great learning opportunity, but more so a way for him to give back and stay connected to the industry he is so passionate about.