Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Nicol Challenge and My Latest Idea for Girls, Computer Science, and Games

On a whim, I entered the Carleton Nicol Challenge and was thrilled to make it to the Top 8.  I pitched my idea in front of a panel of judges (apparently in Dragon's Den fashion, not that I watch the show).  I didn't make the top three, but am perfectly happy with this first attempt at any sort of entrepreneurial competition.

My pitch was titled Girls and Computer Science: Increasing Interest Through Stories and Games.  It's similar in some ways to our recent Imagine Cup game, Gram's House (which sadly did not make it past round one).  However, there are some key differences, such as focusing on a novel with an accompanying app rather than a stand-alone game.

There are many outreach initiatives, and the main themes that appear in most include ensuring girls and women know what computer science actually is (e.g. it is not about learning how to use software), that life in computer science is not what the stereotype portrays, and that you can make a difference in society with computing.

In my pitch, I proposed the creation of a mobile app / novel combo designed to tell a compelling story about computing through story and games, thus encouraging middle and early high school girls to see the field in new light.

The most important aspect of this proposal is the story told to the users.  This story must be targeted to the audience of 12-15 year old girls and paint a positive image of computer science.  The girls must be able to relate to at least one of the main characters so they can imagine themselves in their shoes.  In other words, the story should encourage the girls to project their identities into those of computer science students, a concept explained by video games and learning expert James Paul Gee.  If done right, these identities can transcend into the real world and help counteract the many reasons that girls are not entering the field.

While the story helps with the image problem the field of computer science faces, it doesn’t necessarily show the readers specifically what computer science is.

For this reason, mini-games relating to computer science problems will be introduced throughout the story via a QR code that can be scanned by a mobile device.  These games will be closely related to the problems that the main characters have to solve for homework and for personal endeavours outside of class.  On the surface they will appear to be puzzle games (one of the most popular game genres for middle school females according to research), but of course a meaningful connection to real computer science theory will be made, showing that computer science problems are actually fun and interesting.

Another key aspect is to emphasize that computer science can be used for social good.  The focus is not on the computer or programming itself, but on making a difference with these tools.  Research has shown that girls do indeed care about social good, so these games are an opportunity to connect the technical aspects with the impact they can make.

During the question period of my pitch, I was asked how much money I would need to get this going.  The truth is that what I really need is time.  I have all the tools and resources to accomplish this, but no time to do it.  Maybe it can be one of my post-grad projects.  On the other hand, if anyone out there wants to collaborate with me very closely to get this done sooner, I'd love to hear from you. ;)

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