Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gram's House Project Team Receives Two NSF Pathways Grants!

Gram's House is a research project I started several years ago with a prototype originally designed for Microsoft's Imagine Cup competition.  Since then, a core research team has formed around the project: me (Carleton University), Elisabeth Gee (Arizona State University), Carolee Stewart-Gardiner (Kean University), Gillian Smith (Northeastern University) and Casper Harteveld (Northeastern University).

We just got awarded two NSF Pathways grants for the Advancing Informal STEM Learning program!

The Role of Story in Games to Teach Computer Science Concepts to Middle School Girls

This project is being co-lead by Elisabeth Gee and Carolee Stewart-Gardiner.  Since I'm not a research faculty member, I am participating as a contractor.  We are going to dive deeper into determining the effect of story in educational games that teach computer science to middle school girls.  This will extend previous work I did with a study during my mini-course a couple of years back.
As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds innovative resources for use in a variety of settings. Nationally, the US has a shortage of computer scientists; a big part of this problem is that girls are discouraged from learning computer science at a very young age. This project tries to address this problem by creating a videogame specifically oriented towards getting middle school girls interested in learning computer science concepts outside traditional programming classes. Based on evidence that stories provide a compelling way to present complicated technical subjects and that girls in particular respond to technology careers as a way to help others, the project is building a videogame called "Gram's House" in which social workers intend to move a fictional grandmother to a retirement home unless the player can outfit her home with sufficient technology for her to remain independent. Solving puzzles in the game requires learning core computer science concepts. Research studies will be conducted to determine whether the videogame is effective at getting girls interested in computer science, at teaching computer science concepts, and whether using stories makes videogames more effective for learning.
This project based on an earlier successful prototype uses an iterative research-based design process including paper prototyping, playtesting, and focus groups (N=20) to create age appropriate activities, based on the CS Unplugged series, that support learning concepts from the Data, Internet, Algorithms, and Abstraction sections of the high-school level CS Principles curriculum. A quantitative, quasi-experimental design will be used to determine the overall effectiveness of teaching CS concepts under three types of game conditions: (a) games alone, (b) games with fictional settings, and (c) games with stories. A novel assessment instrument will be developed to assess content learning and qualitative observation using a standard observation protocol will be used to gauge interest and engagement. 70-80 middle school girls will be recruited for afterschool participation in the study in two states. As part of the dissemination efforts, a facilitator's guide, rule book, and materials such as maps and storyboards will be created and shared with the game. In addition, a workshop for computer science and other teachers who are interested in using games to teach CS concepts will be conducted.
(Project link on NSF website.)

GrACE: A Procedurally Generated Puzzle Game to Stimulate Mindful and Collaborative Informal Learning to Transform Computer Science Education

The PCG project, as I like to call it (where PCG stands for procedurally generated content), is being lead by Gillian Smith and Casper Harteveld.  They want to learn more about how best to generate puzzles that teach high level computer science concepts, and whether players will learn more about the concepts when discussing how puzzles are generated in an attempt to help one another solve them.
Northeastern University will design, test, and study GrACE, a procedurally generated puzzle game for teaching computer science to middle school students, in partnership with the Northeastern Center for STEM Education and the South End Technology Center. The Principal Investigators will study the effect of computer generated games on students' development of algorithmic and computational thinking skills and their change of perception about computer science through the game's gender-inclusive, minds-on, and collaborative learning environment. The teaching method has potential to significantly advance the state of the art in both game-based learning design and yield insights for gender-inclusive teaching and learning that could have broad impact on advancing the field of computer science education.

Development and evaluation of GrACE will consist of two, year-long research phases, each with its own research question. The first, design and development, phase will focus on how to design a gender-inclusive, educational puzzle game that fosters algorithmic thinking and positive attitude change towards computer science. The content generator will be created using Answer Set Programming, a powerful approach that involves the declarative specification of the design space of the puzzles. The second phase will be an evaluation that studies, by means of a mixed-methods experimental design, the effectiveness of incorporating procedural content generation into an educational game, and specifically whether such a game strategy stimulates and improves minds-on, collaborative learning. Additionally, the project will explore two core issues in developing multiplayer, collaborative educational games targeted at middle school students: what typical face-to-face interactions foster collaborative learning, and what gender differences exist in how students play and learn from the game. The project will reach approximately 100 students in the Boston area, with long-term goals of reaching students worldwide, once the game has been tested with a local audience. Results of the project will yield a new educational puzzle game that can teach algorithmic thinking and effect attitude change regarding computer science. Through the process of creating a gender-inclusive game to teach computer science, it will provide guidelines for future educational game projects. Beyond these individual project deliverables, it will improve our understanding of the potential for procedural content generation to transform education, through its development of a new technique for generating game content based on supplying educational objectives.
(Project link on NSF website.)


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