WINNIPEG -- Going to class is far from normal at Sisler High School this year thanks to COVID-19. Hallways are divided with taped-on arrows and most students are only physically in class about once a week.

But for Daryl Mabunga, part of the SislerCREATES animation program, the 2020 school year is exceptional for an entirely different reason.

"This whole opportunity is really cool," said Mabunga, who is participating in the inaugural "Orange Tree Project," a collaboration between SislerCREATES and Nickelodeon Studios. "When do you have a chance to talk to these people who are from Nickeloden when you live in Winnipeg, Manitoba?"

Mabunga is one of a group of students participating in the Orange Tree Project, a learning initiative launched in late September that has animation industry professionals teaching students on the ins-and-outs of the animation industry.

Participating students are working in three separate groups, all tasked with developing original story ideas. Each group is being mentored by a Nickelodeon artist throughout the program, which runs until the end of May, and teams will be pitching their story concepts to their Nickelodeon mentors next week.

"I just started learning animation about a month ago," said Mabunga. "Before it was just me making my own stories but now I have a whole bunch of new people helping and putting in new ideas."

"We're creating this thing together so that's really cool."

Getting the Orange Tree Project off the ground is largely thanks to Sisler High School animation teacher and CREATE department head Jamie Leduc, who worked with Nickelodeon to set up the mentorship program.

"I think they're empowered and I think they really want to develop (their) story," said Leduc of his students. "It's more about, from my perspective, the journey and the progress."

"Watching these students develop their skills over time has been a highlight of my career."

Leduc says the program is keeping students engaged, working ten-to-twelve hours a day on their projects, despite all of the COVID-19-related disruptions this year.

And, while students are learning what they need to create animated works from start to finish, they're also gaining skills applicable to any industry.

"I've learned how to communicate with people," said Gab Reyes, one of three team leaders in the program, "Which is especially important during the pandemic with everything online"

"I've learned how important communication is with your teammates, how to arrange things, and how it's okay to have help from other people, as well."

For Nya Langit's team, the project offers a chance to create stories showcasing underrepresented cultures. Langit and members of her team are Filipino, so they're imbuing elements of Filipino mythology into their story pitch, a culture Langit says isn't often seen in mainstream media."

"With Asian representation in the media, it's mainly Chinese or Korean or Japanese," said Langit. "I think if we bring in more Southeast Asian (culture) then more people will feel represented."

The Orange Tree project ends in late May when students will aim to complete three animated short films. The films will then be submitted to various film festivals.