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Case Study: South Burlington High School

At South Burlington's Imaging Lab, students learn the three "Rs" of Reading, 'riting, and Real-Time Rendering using Intergraph Computer Systems ViZual Workstations.

The citizens of South Burlington, Vermont never used to think of their town as a center for high technology, but some students of South Burlington High School are changing all that. As a result of their achievements in technology, the students have been featured in NEA Today, the National School Board Journal, and Technology and Learning magazine, among others. What's all the fuss about? An on-campus facility called the Imaging Lab, where students learn computer-based 3D animation, video production, and other high-tech creative skills using state-of-the-art computer workstations from Intergraph Computer Systems.

The founder and overseer of the Imaging Lab is Tim Comolli, a teacher who spent most of his 35-year career teaching English in this quiet Vermont town. With this background, no one was more surprised than Comolli to find himself accepting the National Technology Teacher of the Year award. The story of how a teacher of Shakespeare became a spokesman for high technology is a testament to what can happen when you mix the energy and curiosity of youth with the extraordinary capabilities of today's computers.

The Imaging Lab had its beginnings in the early 1990s when Comolli was assigned to do a video production class. Comolli had heard about an inexpensive computer-based system from NewTek called the Video Toaster, so the class purchased one with money they had raised through a drug-free schools grant. The class agreed to produce anti-drug commercials featuring the students as a condition of receiving the grant.

Once the students began experimenting with the Video Toaster, it wasn't long before they began using the system in ways that Comolli had never envisioned. For example, after discovering that the computer included software for creating 3D animations, the students began creating animations of their own, which eventually led to the school offering a new class on Electronic Arts. "The kids started playing around with it and the system became very popular," says Comolli. "In fact, some of them started asking to get into the lab on Saturdays. Well, when the school board got wind of that, they wanted to know what was making kids want to go to school on Saturdays."

The school board requested that the class make a demonstration at their next meeting, which they did. The non-technical audience was suitably impressed, including an enthusiastic parent who approached Comolli and offered to get involved. Comolli was familiar with short-lived promises made at board meetings, so he didn't think much of it at the time. But skepticism turned to surprise when the parent walked in the next week with two brand new Amiga 2000 computers, which served as the platform for two new Video Toaster systems. "That got us started," says Comolli. "In fact, there was so much interest that they gave us a little more room than the broom closet we'd been working in."

Despite the newfound attention, Comolli still had doubts about the long-term value of the program. "I figured, this is nice, we're doing cartoons and all that, but I just didn't know how educationally sound it was," admits Comolli. But after inviting some professionals from Resolution Video, a local video production studio, to view the students' work, Comolli began to see the light. "They said, 'We've got people on staff who can't even do this.'" This was Comolli's first indication of the true value of the students' work, and the potential for future careers in the field of computer animation.

Resolution Video was so impressed by the students' work that they financed the purchase of the lab's first IBM-compatible PC, as well as a copy of 3D Studio Max, a professional-level 3D animation package. The students got right to work learning the new system, and designed some logos that were used by local companies. But it wasn't long before the students wanted to raise more money to buy more equipment for the Imaging Lab. So, in addition to sending their demo tape to local businesses, the students began mailing the tape to organizations outside the community, including major software manufacturers.

Dave Pietricola's Draconian Warrior created using Maya 2.5. Image courtesy South Burlington High School.

Once again the students struck gold, attracting the attention of Alias|Wavefront, whose software is used for animation and special effects in major Hollywood productions. A representative from the company paid a visit to the small computer room and made an intriguing offer-free software if the students could raise the money for a high-end computer capable of running the sophisticated software. At the time, such a system cost $30,000. "At first we thought that was impossible," says Comolli. "But if they were about to give us $300,000 worth of software we weren't about to let that pass us by."

So the students began applying for more grants, and soon were accepted by a man who knew the advantages of starting young. His name was Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. South Burlington's Imaging Lab became one of only twenty-two schools and organizations in the country to receive the Bill Gates Road Ahead grant.

The grant from Microsoft provided the $30,000 for buying a computer workstation, and triggered the software grant from Alias|Wavefront. In addition, the students discovered that when the names "Microsoft" and "Bill Gates" become attached to your program, magical things start to happen. New grants flowed in from other donors, and before long, the class had a lab full of Amiga computers, IBM-compatible PCs, and proprietary workstations.

But it was a grant from the Henderson Foundation that turned the Imaging Lab into a state-of-the-art facility. Comolli had initially appealed to the foundation for $7,000 to buy a new type of computer workstation based on standardized technologies rather than expensive proprietary designs. The new workstations, pioneered by Intergraph Computer Systems, offered superior performance over proprietary systems at a fraction of the cost. With the affordability of these new systems, the Henderson Foundation was able to outfit the entire lab with twenty Intergraph ViZual Workstations with a $170,000 donation.

The ViZual Workstations from Intergraph provided the computing power that the class needed to support professional-class software applications. As a result, the Imaging Lab became a state-of-the-art facility using much of the same hardware and software that graduates of South Burlington would encounter in real-world professional environments.

A sample of Todd Cox's work, created using Alias|Wavefront software. Image courtesy South Burlington High School.

In the early days of the Imaging Lab, many of the students came from the ranks of the school's high achievers. But over the years, the program has attracted more of a cross-section of the student body. As a result, Comolli has come to see technology as a leveler. "Sometimes you see a straight-A student get outdone by a kid with a little technical savvy and a sense of creativity," he says. But the one thing they all have in common, according to Comolli, is a lack of fear when it comes to dealing with technology. "Whether it's the top kid or the bottom kid, they just click away, which is something that is difficult for people of my generation," he says. "They'll explore anything, whereas I, on the other hand, am still afraid I'm going to break the cursor or something."

The program has also attracted students from Individual Educational Programs, or IEPs-which focus on students with emotional or social problems. One of these was a student known as J.R., who's father Comolli had taught nearly twenty years ago. Comolli remembers the father as an incorrigible juvenile delinquent and a drug addict. When J.R. was a toddler, the father came home under the influence and injected the boy's mother with a fatal drug overdose, killing her in front of the child. As one might expect, J.R.'s childhood was a rocky one. "He became an incredible problem all the way through school," remembers Comolli. "The school system had to hire someone to be with him every day because he was so violent."

Few thought that J.R. would make it to high school, much less graduate. But as fate would have it, J.R. walked into the Imaging Lab one afternoon, attracted by the images on the computer screens. Comolli remembers it well. "He sat down in front of the computer and just fell in love with what was going on," he says.

J.R. had found his ticket out. After completing four years of high school, he was accepted at Full Sail Academy, a well-known training facility that has produced some of the world's top professional animators. After finishing the program, the boy who everyone thought was headed for jail or worse was offered a teaching position at Full Sail. "That's the kind of thing you see happening in the lab," says Comolli. "Not every day, certainly, but frequently enough to say it's a program worth saving."

Posted on the bulletin board at the Imaging Lab is a USA Today report listing the top ten jobs in the next five years. Computer Animation is listed as number one. And in fact, as the first Imaging Lab students have graduated from college, many of them have chosen computer animation as a career, including applications that are far removed from traditional entertainment-related applications. For example, one student attending Rice University has gravitated toward the medical applications of 3D imaging technology. Another former Imaging Lab student was offered a high-paying job with General Electric immediately after his college graduation.

Comolli is amazed at the salaries being offered to former Imaging Lab students fresh out of college. "Every single one of the kids in the original program graduated within the last couple of years and every single one of them is making more money than I am after teaching school for 35 years," he says. "Go figure." One wouldn't blame Comolli if his complaints were only half in jest. But the only emotion apparent in his voice is an overwhelming sense of pride.