Summer institute targets computer science teaching

By Staff

While computer science graduates may be reaping rewards with among the highest job offer rates of any degree holders, there remains a decline in the participation of women and minority students interested in the field. The leaders of the 2012 Scalable Game Design Summer Institute hope to present new teaching techniques for the field, with the idea that teachers will use them to create new enthusiasm for computer science in their classrooms.

“We have seen a withering pipeline showing a significant loss of students going into computer science,” said School of Education Assistant Professor David Webb. “We need to study computer science education and the ways teachers use a range of instructional methods to support student learning.”

At the 2012 Scalable Game Design Summer Institute on the CU-Boulder campus June 4-10, middle school teachers and school administrators will gain hands-on experience in game design and how this approach to learning enhances Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. Participants will learn teaching techniques employing AgentSheets and AgentCubes software. These tools are especially geared as cascading teaching methods that allow novice users to experience game design and simulation while also leading to more complicated tasks involving much higher-level skills and knowledge to bolster student learning.

The researchers leading the institute, Computer Science Professor Alexander Repenning, who is the lead investigator, and co-principal investigators Webb and School of Education Professor Kris Gutiérrez, have received significant National Science Foundation funding to research viable curricula and teaching techniques geared specifically for computer science and STEM education. Initially funded as part of a 3-year study called iDREAMS, the new 3-year, $1.5 million NSF grant involves more intensified research and teacher training under a project called Computational Thinking for Teaching Computing.

The new project integrates computational thinking to further analyze how video game design aids student reasoning and STEM content learning. The data will continue to enhance the Scalable Game Design curriculum and professional development available for teachers.

“This research validates a theory of broadening participation in computer science education and at the heart of that theory is the concept that ‘instruction matters,’” Webb said. “We have discovered marked differences in student motivation, for instance, with gender disparities in reactions to lessons in classrooms. Women are less motivated when the learning approach is like a lockstep recipe. This hyper-mediated style is less conducive to them than is a ‘guided discovery’ method.

“What educators learn at the Scalable Game Design Summer Institute is how to interact with students to teach them how to design games and science simulations. What the students in the schools discover is that they, too, can design games and simulations — that their computer is more than a tool for writing documents and posting on Facebook, that they can use their computer to design for entertainment or for math or science applications. Students can learn to see themselves as designers of software rather than users of software. This makes a big impact on their own identity and potential career path. It’s important at a young age to at least have these opportunities to jump into computer programming and see if it’s a good fit.”