Tell Me Something, Derek Ritzenberg
Derek Ritzenberg must always feel like he’s running out of time.
He seems to move from one thing to another effortlessly and energetically, smiling all the way.
He gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day and hits the gym for two hours. Then, he comes to work as a project specialist in the Division of Business, Fiscal and Information Systems. When he gets home, he works hard to stay in the moment as a husband and a father.
Balance is important.
“I joined two team fitness classes; it’s such a wonderful thing. … I do meditation daily. If I didn’t, I couldn’t put my best foot forward and have a positive attitude with everything.”
Ritzenberg’s mom, Lisa, has been the greatest influence in his life. His father died of a heart attack just two weeks after he was born; he was 35 years old. Ritzenberg is now 38.
“A close friend of mine passed away in December,” he says. “That has all motivated me. [The gym] has changed my confidence, how I approach my work, my mood, everything. It’s changed the way I take and approach life.”
Ritzenberg was bitten by the education bug early in his life. For 32 years, his mom worked in the MCPS Office of Special Education.
“My mom was working all the time; she worked all hours,” he says. “Over the summers, I would follow her to school buildings, like Lynnbrook, and meet all her coworkers in special ed. I had constant mentors. … She would work on a typewriter, and I remember taking apart an Apple II in her office. I grew up in education.”
His earliest years were also inspired by Barry Palmer, the longtime physical education teacher at Ritzenberg’s elementary school, Stevens Forest in Howard County. “He ran everything there,” he said. “He ran a model rocketry program, where we learned how to build rockets and launch them. We had Friday night roller skating and limbo. He would get donated skates so everyone could participate. He did all these things to encourage kids to do something and to be part of the school.”
After high school, Ritzenberg enrolled at Salisbury University. He’d always had an interest in computer programming and gaming, but double majored in communications and conflict resolution in education.
They were all skills he would come to rely on in future endeavors.
While in college, he worked as a behavior counselor at a Wicomico County middle school, and with a local family psychology practice to learn about assessments and evaluations. These experiences inspired him to want to work with students with severe emotional and behavioral needs.
“I fell in love with the population so much that I went from being a paraeducator [at the former Mark Twain School] to becoming a special ed teacher,” he says.
He spent time as department chair for the Crossroads Program, a learning for independence program at Mark Twain, and received a master’s in special education. He soon landed at James Hubert Blake High School, intrigued by the creativity of the school’s art and technology programs. When a colleague who started a video game development program left the school, Ritzenberg jumped at the opportunity.
It was a job that would meld many of his passions.
He began teaching computer technology, introduction to interactive media, and simulation and video game development. He was interested in creating a new curriculum, realizing that it needed to be updated with 3D software. Ritzenberg also took himself back to school, enrolling at the University of Baltimore’s simulation and digital entertainment program, and heading to game development companies for workshops on app development and augmented reality.
“I started a program where we took students passionate in art and programming and developed gamelike experiences,” he said. “At the end of the year, we had a Shark Tank-like competition. Students pitched their projects in front of the class and the kids suggested bringing in experts who could give advice.”
BlakeScape was born.
Before long, Ritzenberg was bringing in friends from the video gaming industry who offered advice on how to structure his classes and the curriculum. Big-name game developers such as BreakAway Games, ZeniMax Media and Firaxis Games agreed to judge the competition. Hundreds of people attended, and soon, Ritzenberg was contacted by colleges and universities who wanted to sponsor the event.
The event was renamed CreatorCon, and became a huge media festival that celebrated the pursuit of careers in the arts, computer science, gaming, interactive media and technology industries.
“It was a fantastic networking experience,” Ritzenberg said. There were professional artists, creators and developers, joined by high school and college students, and colleges and universities showcased their programs so parents could check out their offerings.
Over the years, Ritzenberg also had students involved in Global Game Jam, a competition that pitted high school students against college and industry professional game development teams in an intense 48-hour weekend competition. Blake won the prestigious Judges Award two years in a row.
“It forced our high schoolers to create a real-life experience and grind it out, working with other people in a collaborative environment with high levels of stress,” he said, feeling that he had “captured lightning in a bottle.”
“The benefit for kids is seeing what they’re passionate about and knowing that there are resources and programs and opportunities that pay to provide career experiences that are tangible,” Ritzenberg says. “It gives them confidence; the skills they are learning can be used in so many industries. Students find out more about who they are.
“So many of my students developed their own YouTube channels and became masters of promoting themselves. … The video game industry is very difficult. They open and close every other month. You have to network and be a master at what you do so you’ll be marketable.”
After nine years at Blake, Ritzenberg started thinking about what was next for him.
“I felt like I wanted to do something bigger than at a school,” he says. “I wanted to help schools, but also staff, to help train them to use technology. … I wanted to work on projects that were collaborative.”
Today, he loves his work as a project specialist. He continues to do what he does best—create technology products that make life easier and bring people together. He developed online training modules for special ed staff regarding best practices in restraint and seclusion, and first aid. He also created an online course called Transition 101, to prepare special ed students for postsecondary opportunities.
To cut down on the amount of paperwork in special ed, he was tasked with finding a way to move it all online. He designed and programmed interactive digital forms to receive electronic signatures, add attachments and log data. He is leading the Medical Assistance Unit in beginning a pilot to manage medical assistance forms between all schools and their unit. Instead of days of printing, ponying and stuffing cabinets with bundles of documents, everything moves online seamlessly, safely and securely.
He received a request from RICA to help students who go into crisis. In the past, students were taken to a silent response room to defuse tension and de-escalate the situation. For two years, Ritzenberg studied options, including the possibility of using virtual reality to calm down students in these situations. Today, Oculus Go headsets are programmed with virtual reality guided meditation. A student puts the headset on, and is able to choose the voice, music and environment that would best calm them. “They are self-analyzing the strategies that are best for them,” Ritzenberg explains. “All the choices are mirrored on to an iPad,” so data can be collected.
He’s currently developing a virtual tour for Thomas Edison High School of Technology. “You’ll be able to use your finger and pan or zoom around,” Ritzenberg says. “There are hot-button items, so you can click on certain areas and you’ll get a pop-up video of a teacher talking about their program or you’ll see [principal] Shawn Krasa introducing the building. You can go on a journey and provide interactive experiences.”
He’s also redesigning the all-new media center for Rock Terrace School, which will launch in 2020. His focus is to provide an environment within the media center that provides interactive zones of learning through augmented reality and an engaging ecosystem of assistive technology for all learners.
He has been contacted by police departments to create a way for first responders to identify a child who is a runaway, or to build an augmented reality app to identify children that go missing.
“You absolutely couldn’t have this job if you didn’t love what you do,” he says. “You have to constantly evolve and push yourself to overcome challenges that are sometimes small and sometimes monumental. I think that is motivating in itself.”
He says his work ethic comes from his mom. “Being detail oriented was numero uno for her,” he says. “That rubbed off on me so much.”
It’s also paid off in ways he could never have imagined. Coming up in March, for instance, he will be presenting at the SXSW EDU (South by Southwest Education Conference and Festival). His talk, XR Adventures for Students with Super-Abilities, will explore how VR provides virtual mindfulness and relaxation strategies that can be used as prevention, as well as crisis intervention, to address students’ emotional needs, to enhance self-regulation and to increase student availability for instruction.
When he gets home at night, it can be hard for him to turn off his creativity.
“I always have to do something,” Ritzenberg says. He’s also a drone pilot, so he often helps his wife, Marie, who’s a real estate agent, with projects.
In addition, he’s created about 20 augmented and virtual reality apps at home. Many of them have an educational component. His extended-reality (AR, VR and 360) videos and projects can be found on his website. “I often think of what could help my kids; they are my play testers,” Ritzenberg says.
He and his wife have two children— son Devin, who’s 8, and daughter Lennon, 3. His son has a vision disability, convergence insufficiency, which makes reading and writing difficult, and his eyes can easily get overstimulated.
“My son is like an apprentice to me now,” Ritzenberg says. “He plays basketball and he makes basketball tutorials for his friends.” (Ritzenberg coaches the team.) “He’ll pick up the guitar and play music to my daughter. … He makes jewelry. I had a video project in California and I took him with me. We went to a gem mine and he came back home with all sorts of things. He makes some pretty creative stuff and sells it to my wife’s friends.”
Tell Me More
Hometown: Columbia, Md.
Family: Wife, Marie, and children, Devin, 8, and Lennon, 3
What is one thing you couldn’t live without: My family. My wife is my backbone. She works very hard and is an amazing mom.
If you could have any other job for one day, what would it be: Air Force pilot
What are three traits that define you: Creative, caring and one who never stops
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be: Film producer
What was your first-ever job: Working at Friendly’s scooping ice cream during the summer
What do you do if you have 30 minutes of free time: Take my kids for nature walks. Go fishing. We’ll go in the woods and ride bikes.
Best place you’ve traveled: Topenga, Calif. Right now, it’s the hangout place for the hippies. It’s very peaceful and has the most amazing hiking trails. On one side, there’s these lush hills and on the other, the ocean. I took my son there in April and we fell in love with everything. It’s my true respite. Just heavenly.
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be: Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t think I could imagine someone who tried to benefit society in such a great sense and had so many challenges to deal with. To be able to carry out his passion and what he felt was the most just, is amazing.