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Design in action: Rocklin High students get real-world experience

Graphics class creates icons for Akwaaba Foundation
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Placer Herald and Press Tribune editor
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Rocklin High School’s graphic design students are finishing up a project that just might change the world.

A small group of Graphics I and II students have spent the last few months working on a project commissioned by the Akwaaba Foundation, based out of Meadow Vista. Akwaaba seeks to put into the hands of students all over the world a computer program that teachers how economics, the environment and politics can all work together to make the world run better.

Simpolicon is the brainchild of Denney Daetz, who retired to Placer County after 40 years teaching high school in Saratoga and Los Gatos. He developed Simpolicon after spending three years in the Peace Corps in Ghana, when he realized many students here did not have much understanding about Third World struggles.

Simpolicon started as a pen-and-paper exercise in the late 1970s, and Daetz programmed it for the Apple computer.

Students are randomly assigned a country and given 12 resources, unskilled labor and hand tools to start, and must make choices about what the manufacture and how, who to sell to, and whether their country is labor- or capital-intensive, etc., working with student representatives from other countries to trade, or gift, needed resources.

One lesson Daetz has seen learned repeatedly is that a country’s size doesn’t matter in Simpolicon – he’s seen countries the size of Senegal come out on top just as often as the U.S. or Russia.

“I tell people it’s kind of like chess,” he said. “Chess is very simple in its moves. The pawn goes up one space, the knight goes up and over, but it’s ultimately complex. It’s how you mix the permutations of the simple moves.”

Simpolicon was an immensely popular feature for students up until Daetz’s retirement in 2007. It also gained popularity elsewhere, as more than 750 schools had purchased the program.

Now Daetz and his wife, Laura, have formed the nonprofit Akwaaba Foundation (“akwaaba” means “welcome” in the West African language Twi) to make the program available, for free, to educators worldwide. An Internet version would mean students could interact with each other across borders and oceans.

It also means programming an Internet version of Simpolicon, no small undertaking. The foundation has partnered with Columbia University’s Teachers College and educational technology students for the project, which has a price tag of just under $15,000.

So Daetz was dismayed to learn it could cost over $7,500 extra to create the icons for the simulation.

Luckily, he found Amy Tackett, the graphic design teacher at Rocklin High. Her students are often involved in community and school projects, creating logos and designs for nonprofits like Gloves & Shovels and school sports teams.

They also produce “Out of the Blue,” the school’s creative arts magazine, and its DVD supplement.

In addition to using computer programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to do graphic design, Rocklin High also has an interactive workshop where students can oversee the actual production of their designs via 3D modeling and engraving machines.

Tackett said she tries to keep graphics students involved with the community, because that’s where they get the most realistic feedback that will help them prepare for a job.

“They’re really having to work beyond just time management and their design skills,” she said. “They have to learn to work with a stranger, a client – those personable skills, those soft skills.”

The students took on the Simpolicon project, expanding on about 30 icons available from the United Nations to create 100 new icons representing anything from rice and wheat to philanthropy and coal mining.

Senior Trevor McGoldrick created about 12 icons, and he said that while the drawings are simple, they came with a unique challenge.

“There wasn’t anything to base our icons off of, because they’re supposed to be universal icons across all languages,” he said. “So it was really hard to try to think of an icon for a certain word.”

Senior Angelica Smith said she appreciated the feedback from Daetz, adding that as she prepares to study at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, knowing to work with a client will come in handy.

“That’s probably how things are going to go,” she said. “People might not like your work, and you can’t take it personally. You’ve just got to change it.”

Daetz said he was very happy with the work the Rocklin High students did, estimating that it saved the foundation about $10,000. Each student who worked on the project will receive a letter of recommendation to put in their portfolios.

“They’ve just been marvelous,” he said. “They have just been fantastic at doing what they’re doing.”

The students, the client and the teacher are all satisfied with the project, which is nearing completion as students put the finishing touches on their icons.

“It’s a huge project,” Tackett said. “It’s probably the biggest one we’ve ever undertaken, but just knowing them, because they’ve worked with me for several years, I knew that they could do it. There’s nothing that these guys can’t tackle.”