Wacom goes to school

Camas firm’s tablets purchased for several local classrooms

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Wacom’s digital pen tablets are used by some of the world’s top designers and artists, and now they’re also in the eager hands of Sheri Nimmo’s students at Union High School in Camas.

The Wacom tablets, with pens sensitive enough to capture over 2,000 levels of pressure in creating art or graphics, are products of a Japanese company that bases its operations for the Americas in Vancouver.

Thanks to the passion of some Evergreen school district teachers and a series of neighbor-to-neighbor connections, Evergreen high school students began using the Wacom devices last month.

The nonprofit Evergreen Schools Foundation, convinced that using Wacom tools would prepare students for employment or advanced professional training, spent $7,000 to buy 20 Wacom professional-quality Intuos4 tablets — five each for Union, Evergreen, Heritage and Mountain View high schools.

“This is the kind of tool where we don’t have to worry about its value,” says Michael Parsons, an Evergreen Public Schools board member who also serves on the foundation’s board. “We know it will work and will also be useful in the real world.

“Any more, having a piece of paper or a degree is not all that any employer looks for,” Parsons says. “They want to see some skills.”

Perhaps students in classes taught by Nimmo, a former graphic designer now in her second year as a teacher, are thinking about future jobs. But for now, many of them are simply enjoying the creative opportunities the Intuo4 provides in their high school classroom.

Austin Klein, an 18-year-old Union High senior, latched onto the Intuos4 immediately and has become a technological leader in Nimmo’s gaming design class.

Wacom’s tablets allow users to draw onto a desktop tablet attached to a computer monitor, using a highly-sensitive pen featuring multiple options for tips, with the drawing appearing on the computer monitor. The digital pen and tablet replace the use of a much less precise computer mouse to guide drawing. Wacom’s pens can be easily used to create scenery or two-dimensional sprites in computer games, or to edit and enhance photos in Photoshop software.

Drawing a background on Photoshop, “my pen did in 10 minutes what would have taken me two hours with a mouse,” Klein says. “I finished it insanely fast.” Klein also used the new tool to redo a drawing originally created using a mouse. “I made it 100 times better,” he says.

On the day of the Wacom tablets’ arrival, Nimmo made her rounds as the devices were linked into the school’s computer network. It was, for Nimmo, a dream come true to see her students using the same tools used by artists and illustrators at such world-class local companies as Nike, Wieden + Kennedy and Laika.

The new tools will be used in the school’s popular game design and photography classes, she said.

“Getting these tools into the hands of students is going to be incredible,” Nimmo said. “This is going to release a lot of creativity.”

In the first couple of weeks since that day, some students have embraced the new wonder tool, while others are holding back. “People who have tried them out are loving them since the first day,” said Trey Cornish, a 14-year-old freshman at Union High.

“Five of us are total experts, but some don’t even try them out,” he added. Cornish already is using the Wacom pen in place of a mouse for many routine computer functions, a common practice among longer-term Wacom tablet users.

Wacom’s presence as a local business played a role in the link between the company and the school district.

School board member Parsons, while acknowledging his own limited understanding of technology, was intrigued with the products after talking to his neighbor Steve Smith, Wacom’s development manager for graphic solutions. He toured the company and mulled the pen tablet’s potential after attending a presentation about digital art at Heritage High School.

Around that time, Nimmo and a few other teachers were talking about the same topic. The conversation broadened to include the Evergreen Schools Foundation and Wacom applications specialist Joe Sliger, who is an Evergreen district resident.

“Basically what I did was start the ball and get out of the way,” Parsons says.

Park Llafet, vice president of the Evergreen Schools Foundation, said he and others were swayed by the enthusiastic pitch from Nimmo and other teachers familiar with industry practices. The teachers estimated that the 20 tablets would be used by up to 1,500 students, a strong selling point, Llafet said. Students will benefit whether heading straight to the workplace or into advanced education, he believes.

“With any technology of that caliber, you’re opening up that whole world, whether they want to work for local companies or go to New York,” he says.

Sliger will observe and monitor classroom use of the Intuos4 to prepare training videos for the product. He and Smith will work on training materials including webinars, videos on the company’s website and YouTube, and other tools to help teachers and other trainers master the product’s vast potential.

Smith has found that tight budgets and slow-moving funding cycles have limited the ability of many school districts nationally to introduce Wacom’s professional-quality products.

“We’ve had some success in high schools, but it’s been more ad-hoc,” he says. “The Evergreen district is “kind of a pilot place to do it because of the relationships and the proximity,” Smith said. “On my side, that’s what I’m excited about.”