Creation of computer games an effective teaching tool for girls and boys, alike

Last November, researchers at the University of Alberta published an interesting finding in the ongoing mission to reveal what on earth might bring girls to be more excited about computing science. Through a joint effort between the Computing Science and Education departments, Mike Carbonaro, Duane Szafron, Maria Cutumisu and Jonathan Schaeffer discovered a gender-neutral activity that may attract boys and girls, alike. Surprisingly, that activity pertains to something stereotypically associated with boys: computer games.

During a two-day tutorial at the University of Alberta, the researchers presented a group of grade ten English students with a development platform called ScriptEase. Using this tool, they each created an interactive adventure game. Most of the students had no previous experience in programming and none of the students had expressed an interest in pursuing this field of study, post-graduation.

Students were assessed in three areas: higher order thinking, computing science abstraction skills, and activity enjoyment. Put simply:

  • Did they produce a game that involved a complex story line, solving of multiple puzzles, and several possible paths that lead to “winning”?
  • Did they exhibit learning in basic computing science skills?
  • Did they have fun?

Of particular interest is that the study found no gender difference in how much fun students reported having while engaged in what was a successful teaching activity for both genders. And, since the activity was gender neutral, there was no need to segregate boys and girls in order to administer gender-appropriate activities to each group.

To increase the representation of females in the field of Computing Science, it is critical to create an educational environment that they perceive as more enjoyable. Our study shows that given the right tool-set and pedagogical context, female students can develop higher order thinking skills, master abstract computational concepts, construct meaningful computational artifacts (interactive stories), in a gender neutral activity, and have fun doing it. Our hope is that this learning environment encourages female students to pursue Computing Science as a field of study and work. (Carbonaroa, Szafronb, Cutumisub & Schaeffer, 2010)

Take it all in for a moment. Girls. Computer games. Learning. Fun. Who knew?

Sadly, computer science wasn’t part of the curriculum when I was in grade 10. But, something tells me 15-year-old Colleen would have been all over this assignment. Hopefully, budding little lady-programmers will feel similarly enthused.

A preprint of the researchers’ full article is available here.

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