Boise State’s Games, Interactive Media, and Mobile Technology program turns technology towards a higher calling
By Sharon Fisher
Some people picture computer game developers more as Shadow Warriors, referencing the popular video game, than warriors for the public good. But that’s a stereotype Boise State’s games, interactive media, and mobile technology program is turning on its head.
“Education has to be about transformational growth. Yes, our students will learn skills to get a job, but I want students to understand that when they’re the person who can help, they do help,” said Anthony Ellertson, program director and clinical professor.
“The most important thing for us is to reinforce the creative process, the vision of our students, and technology in a way that enhances our communities.”
Toward that end, students have created a wide range of apps, from those that benefit schools and nonprofit organizations including museums and historic sites, to those that help children and people with disabilities learn new skills.
What is games, interactive media, and mobile technology?
The program, Ellertson said, is “a transdisciplinary major that teaches programming and visual design for the purposes of virtual and augmented reality development, mobile apps, games, and the web.”
In short, he added, “It’s any time technology interfaces with a human being.”
Now in its seventh year, the program, which is part of the College of Innovation and Design, graduates around 50 students annually, with 230 to 240 majors. Rather than working solo, students work on development teams much as they would in industry. Students receive pay for their work, though the apps they create are free.
A mosaic of talents
Students interested in games, interactive media, and mobile technology run the gamut. Many hold double majors and double minors in related fields like computer science, visual arts, and information technology management. And companies are snapping them up, sometimes before they graduate. Some students, like Ryna Hall, a Boise sophomore, find internships at high-profile companies. Hall said she had “very limited programming experience” when she came to Boise State, but her work on a development team honed her skills and helped her score a summer internship with Microsoft.
Technology fields typically attract more men than women, but the program is working to balance its ranks. And several women lead development teams. One former team lead, Olivia Thomas, a commencement speaker in 2021, became a product manager at Microsoft.
Matching talented students with worthy projects
Throughout the year, Ellertson works with the community to find projects for the development teams. He said he looks for projects that might not otherwise get attention from other organizations.
Here’s a closer look at some of them.
Gear Up Idaho.
Gear Up is a national program run by the Department of Education with a chapter in each state. Its purpose is to inspire students, beginning in middle school, to think about going to college and pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Students in games, interactive media, and mobile technology worked remotely with hundreds of Gear Up students from across the state, teaching game design, 3D modeling, and 2D animation.
With Boise State, Gear Up students developed an augmented reality app to help children with special needs understand the concept of personal space.
“Gear Up required a lot of one-on-one meetings with students and faculty, teaching them how to use various software and guiding them through exploring design ideas,” said Jarne Sennesael, a Belgium-born senior who moved to Pocatello, Idaho, when he was 6. “All of this experience has made me more comfortable working with a small-sized team, learning to listen to others for ideas, and being able to take criticism.”
This app began as Bronco Beam, developed by students in the program (Tyler Chapman, Issiac Torrero, and Olivia Thomas) to solve a couple of problems on campus. More than a quarter of Broncos report food insecurity, or not knowing where their next meal will come from. At the same time, leftover food goes to waste from catered events on campus. The app alerts students and others when leftover food is available.
The app’s new name hints at its additional purposes – helping students in the same classroom, with the same question, find each other through their phones and build learning communities. The app offers augmented reality campus tours of Boise State and other campuses. Its next iteration will use advanced wayfinding to make campus more accessible for students who are blind.
The idea is to keep more students engaged and supported.
“What makes students stay in college? When they feel like they’re part of a learning community,” Ellertson said. He thinks an app like Bronco Tours can help.
Anne Frank Project.
After vandals defaced the Anne Frank Memorial at Boise’s Wassmuth Center for Human Rights with swastikas in 2020, the program worked with Isaac Castellano, a professor in political science to create an augmented reality app. A grant from the Department of Homeland Security supported the project.
The app, slated for completion by the end of the year, uses historical artifacts to educate users about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
“The message we’re trying to deliver is that when someone desecrates a place like this, it matters why they used that symbolism,” Ellertson said.
The app is interactive. When users tour the memorial and come to a place where vandals painted the infamous symbol, they will be able to “take their finger and wipe it away,” Ellertson said.