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Feature: MSU's Media Sandbox

Michigan State University artistic image

MSU’s new integrated media arts program prepares students for a digital world where communication is experienced via multimedia rather than simply read, watched or heard.

As communications technology evolves and an increasingly agile media alters a landscape once dominated by static words, MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences has positioned itself well ahead of the curve with what they have named the “Media Sandbox.”

This past fall, MSU launched an integrated media arts program—the heart of the Media Sandbox—to meet the increasing demand for graduates with creative and multimedia skills and experience.

The program boasts more than 600 freshmen majoring in advertising, journalism, and media and information. Rather than waiting until their junior year to delve into courses specific to their majors, these freshmen are getting hands-on training from day one in integrated media arts.

They have one thing in common: When they graduate, they will be uniquely well-prepared for a dynamic and evolving media of the future.

The new program is the brainchild of college leadership and more than 20 faculty members in the Media Sandbox—a concept so named because of the spontaneity, creativity and unpredictable magic that can arise in an experimental space. MSU’s Media Sandbox includes an integrated media arts curriculum, visiting artists, special events and creative projects by faculty and students. And it builds upon recent successes: Emmy awards, Addy awards, documentary honors, film festival screenings and other honors.

Over the past 10 years, explains Dean Pamela Whitten, the MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences has been reshaping its curricula to prepare students for this new technology-heavy world. The college began to robustly invest on the arts side about two years ago.Collectively, the result is the Media Sandbox.

In today’s digitally connected world, the need for creative solutions and well-designed multimedia is more important, and more in demand than ever, she notes.

“Today, we don’t just read or watch media—we experience them,” says Whitten. “Demand for well-educated media students who can create stories and experiences in an integrated and creative way is exploding, and MSU can fill that need.”

Bob Albers, longtime professor of telecommunications, is the director of the Media Sandbox.

“We wanted to encourage collaboration between these majors, which is important with media convergence today and for the exciting future of media, whatever shape that takes,” he notes.

Most importantly, Albers says, students will have more opportunities to make job connections.

He notes that they will have access to an extensive creative network, which includes CEOs, awardwinning Editors, Academy Award winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, musicians, journalists and creative thought-leaders—many of whom are MSU alumni.

“These new graduates will be the most employable new media artists, innovators and storytellers who will be well equipped to tackle the challenges of a continually evolving and unpredictable industry,” he says. “Every business requires communication today.

“This is a revolution inside our college that touches our communities.”

Classes you love going to

Hayley Kluska is a Media Sandbox student. Originally from Chicago, Kluska was looking for an out-of-state school that was a good fit withher creative background.She had completed early college coursework during the summers at the Art Institute of Chicago, along with high school art classes. Soccer, art and video editing are her hobbies.

“I like being creative, but in this economy I wanted to make sure I’m as employable as possible,” she says. “So I decided to study advertising.”

She says she made a great decision.Her high school counselor suggested MSU’s advertising program, and she visited last winter. Finding the campus beautiful during her winter visit, she enrolled and was accepted.Now that she’s on campus, she is definitely in her element. She has joined the MSU Telecasters student group and is an editor for the student production Giraffe House. She is considering getting involved in more activities, like the student-run Impact Radio. “I love Comm Arts,” she notes. “I’m meeting so many new friends. I love the classes—they are the kind you love going to.”

The foundations courses Kluska took “Creative Processes” with journalism faculty member Karl Gude last fall. It is one of three foundations courses required of all students in the integrated media arts program.The others are “The Digital Image,” taught by advertising faculty member Henry Brimmer, and “Story and Motion,” taught by telecommunication, information studies, and media faculty member Bob Albers. These three courses form the core of the integrated media arts program.

The courses are intended to spark students’ creativity. You might see students tweeting in class with the faculty member or photographing or filming a local blues concert for an assignment.

In addition to the foundations courses, students choose from a series of one-credit media production courses ranging from animation to web design.

Renaissance approach to 21st century education

Throughout the planning of the program, alumni have been pivotal sounding boards, especially successful creative executives W. Clark Bunting and Craig Murray—both recent winners of MSU’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Both regularly hire MSU interns and graduates for their companies. Bunting (see p. 58), the president and general manager of Discovery Channel, is proud of the direction his college is taking with the integrated media arts program.

“The Media Sandbox is definitely a result of Dean Pamela Whitten’s forward-thinking vision and of the efforts of a forward-leaning college,” Bunting says. “This is a leap ahead of most other universities because of the Integrated approach. It’s really a renaissance approach to 21st century education, yet the students will still specialize in a particular major.

“The integration of all these skills does prepare students better,” says Bunting. “Most organizations today use a multimedia approach. At Discovery, for example, we heavily use social media while producing our TV shows— it’s a very different approach than 10 years ago.

“The foundation of this new program is built on the same principles that guide us at Discovery— that humans are naturally curious beings, and we all love g y shown or told.”

Craig Murray agrees. He is the founder and CEO of CMP Entertainment Group, Inc., and mOcean, one of the largest creative marketing/design agencies and production companies in the entertainment industry.

“I think this is a very exciting time for the MSU College of Communication Arts & Sciences,” says Murray. “Beyond the new tools and instruction that Media Sandbox represents, it also boldly proclaims: We believe in the power of storytelling. That is At the heart of the entire integrated media arts program.

“And while it is true that the Media Sandbox will teach students how to design, write, shoot, program and edit using the latest technological wizardry—the real success will lie in inspiring them to use their imagination to create new ideas, to tell the kind of stories that maybe, one day, can help change the world.”

Blown away by the creativity

Meet Jack Meloche. He’s a media and information freshman from Chelsea, with strong Spartan roots. “Both of my parents are An influence on his decision to enroll, but so was his visit to MSU last fall.

“I was blown away by the creativity in Comm Arts. I had no idea how developed the integrated media arts program was. You have the resources of a Big 10 school and the quality of the best creative programs.”

Meloche knew he wanted to pursue a creative career path, as his interests show: 12 years of piano, eight years of violin, many roles in the local theatre guild and a regular stint video editing a local Cable TV show. A video he made in high school, “Symphony from Shawshank,” uses the sounds from the movie to create a musical piece. Being creative is his hobby.

Now, he’s putting his creativity to use at MSU. He has joined Telecasters as an editor for the student production Sideshow. He loves his classes, especially The Digital Image.

“I remember the first day of class thinking ‘This is awesome.’ My professor (Henry Brimmer) is passionate about what he does, and it truly shows in the way he teaches. I’m learning so much.”

Meloche points out that access to a TV studio and stations “is truly something special. To see your work go on the air is rewarding.”

WKAR offers more experiences

Students have more options than ever for hands-on experiences with the move of MSU Broadcasting Services into the college n July. Having shared physical space within the Communication Arts building since 1981, the move completed a unifying philosophical, administrative and operational process that will lead to both greater efficiency and greater growth.

Students have the opportunity to work with experienced producers, reporters and content creators.Likewise, the energy and enthusiasm of the students involved at all levels offers the stations a fresh look at connecting with a new young audience. Starting this fall, students have been using the larger studio spaces of WKAR, and the stations have utilized a variety of equipment from CAS. In a challenged budgetary environment, these collaborations are essential.

“Leading the changes in an aggressive media landscape, while Forging a new model for collegiate media integration, is at the top of our agenda as we move into the future,” says Gary Reid, acting director of MSU Broadcasting Services.

I like telling stories in unique ways

Liam Zanyk McLean is a freshman from Midland majoring in journalism.

“My teachers in Midland raved about MSU and it’s a popular choice for graduates of my high school,” says Zanyk, who was very involved in his high school newspaper and spent a lot of time working on personal creative projects.

He chose MSU “because I thought it would be a good fit for my areas of study, particularly in graphics and other areas of journalism,” he explains. “I love and enjoy practicing journalism. I like telling stories in unique ways.”

He’s taking journalism and writing courses, as well as Chinese and tennis in year one. “I love it so far,” he says. “There are so many social and academic opportunities to always keep life interesting. I would tell people that MSU is a place where students are the focus.It’s a huge improvement from high school. The campus is huge, but in many ways, that’s a good thing.”

Thinking about the job market after graduation

Elizabeth Izzo is from the Milwaukee area. She is majoring in advertising and pursuing the multidisciplinary design specialization, a And she is in the Honors College.

“I grew up watching MSU basketball with my family and I came with my brother when he toured MSU,” she says.

She says she was “incredibly involved in everything!” in high School. “I really enjoyed our student government and acting in our school’s plays and musicals,” she says. “I was also really interested in photography and design so I took pictures for sports teams and designed T-shirts for Homecoming and other events.Both of those interests in addition to my graphic arts classes led me to join the yearbook staff my senior year. The graphic arts class was definitely my favorite because I found something I was passionate about and could excel in.

“I was originally considering a career in design, graphic design specifically,” she notes. “When I toured other schools that had graphic design as a major, the focus of the curriculum was studio art, and I am not an artist in that respect.”

Izzo says thinking about the job market also affected her choice of MSU. “I needed something to give me a leg up on the competition,” she says. “When I applied to MSU, advertising was the closest major to graphic design I could find, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that studying advertising would make me more knowledgeable and well rounded for other aspects of the Industry besides just design. To be doing something creative that I love and makes me happy, that’s my dream career.”

Being your true creative self

Rebecca Guajardo is originally from Brownsville, TX. She moved to Traverse City when she was 13 years old, and today she is majoring in journalism and communication at MSU.

“Growing up in Michigan during my teenage years really exposed me to the different universities that Michigan has to offer,” she says. “Alumni from My high school went to MSU and have been successful. I also attended journalism camps at MSU. I decided to attend MSU during my junior year aft er hearing from students that have loved the university and because of the journalism program.”

Guajardo has been involved in yearbook since the 8th grade.“Working on publications is like second nature to me,” she says.

As part of the integrated media arts program, she enrolled in Creative Processes her first semester.“I’ve never taken a class that has just let you be yourself,” she notes.

“Other classes have certain expectations and this class is focused on getting out of your comfort zone and being your true creative self.

“My MSU experience has been amazing so far. Because MSU is such a big campus, a lot of people assume that students really don’t receive individual attention. In the Communication Arts and Sciences Building, I have never received that vibe. From the first day of orientation, I’ve felt that the whole staff is very hospitable and positive. I enjoy how much the faculty and staffare interested in their students being successful.Students get hands-on experience earlier to discover what they truly enjoy and what career they wanto pursue.”

The “sandbox” metaphor

The sandbox metaphor is a good one for this program, says Media Sandbox Director Bob Albers. “A sandbox is a receptacle or holding lots of sand. This is one large enough for great ideas, amazing tools and creative play.T’s truly magical to watch what happens in this sandbox.”

Craig Murray summarizes what can be expected in the uture. “It’s been my experience that most universities offer new media courses that focus primarily on the latest and shiniest technology,” he says. “But technology constantly becomes outdated—the art of storytelling, however, never does. With the Media Sandbox concept, MSU is focusing not on the year 2012, but on preparing our Comm Arts graduates to make a difference in the years 2020, 2030…and far beyond.”

Kirsten Khire is communications manager of the MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences.


Meet a data visualization guru—Ben Fry, a graduate of the MIT Media Laboratory, principal of design firm Fathom and author of Visualizing Data, will speak at MSU April 12-14 (

Enjoy new faculty and student produced programs on WKAR—This fall WKAR launched “Beneath The Pines: Inside the Spartan Marching Band,” a seven-part series. Other programs include a cooking show in cooperation with the Kellogg Center’s Visiting Chef series, a Michigan business roundup show and another musical program supplementing the “Backstage Pass” series.

See student work on display at the MSU Museum—Student work is a part of the MASKS exhibit. The exhibit includes 30 photographic images from a Digital Image class.

See a student film premiere at the Detroit Institute of Arts—MSU students worked with Michigan Creative Film Alliance colleagues from Michigan and Wayne State on a 30-minute film, “Beauty Queen,” which premieres this spring at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Hire students and faculty members for project help—CAS Media is a service offered by the College of Communication Arts and Sciences for clients seeking media production services. Contact Amol Pavangadkar at

Support a creative project—Faculty members and students are currently working on photography, museum exhibits, documentaries, feature films, video games, creative campaigns and other projects. Make a difference by becoming a donor (visit

Visit for more information.  

Author: Robert Bao