Bayliss at RIT exemplifies the newest generation of academics who are developing and using game-based curricula. Growing up with board games in the 1970s, she recalls playing her first video game in the early 1980s in a Pizza Hut: Space Invaders. While working on her PhD in computer science, though, she had no time to kill aliens or move around tokens. “It was a lot of stress,” she says. “I missed games while doing a doctorate.”
Today, Bayliss applies gaming models in computer programming classes. “You can still teach basic concepts like data structures and algorithms using entertainment technology as an application,” she says.
Last summer, Bayliss ran a course for incoming freshmen called “Reality and Programming Together.” Students learned the basics of object-oriented programming and the Java software language by learning how to make objects move in simple game environments. Enrollees got no credit for the course, and had to attend for 10 weeks, sometimes sacrificing vacations. Still, 92 percent passed it, which meant they could take a higher-level computer science course that fall. Bayliss has now submitted a paper about the project to a scholarly journal.
Another Microsoft recipient, the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has already published some of its results. The Carnegie Mellon team, co-directed by computer science professor Randy Pausch, has been developing game-based computer science courses for a decade, ever since he took a leave of absence to work at Walt Disney Imagineering studios. From there, it was “no turning back,” Pausch says.
Today, his pride and joy is a 10-year-old named Alice. An open-source, publicly available program, Alice is designed for teaching introductory programming classes. It leads students through the process of constructing programs not by writing them from scratch, but by selecting, dragging, and dropping the pre-formed commands needed to animate a 3-D character on the screen. So far, more than 50 colleges and “countless” high schools have adopted it, according to Pausch. “Having a penguin move two steps forward is the same as x becoming x+2,” he says. “There are ‘if’ statement and loops in [Alice], but it’s more visceral and obvious…Kids want to stay in the lab after the session is over.”
In a report for the National Science Foundation in 2000, the Carnegie Mellon researchers showed that freshmen in CS1 who used Alice average a B grade, while those in the control group who didn’t use Alice averaged a C. Furthermore, retention rates – the proportion of students using Alice in CS1 who moved on to CS2 – rose from 47 percent to 88 percent.
Pausch, who continues to update Alice with more capabilities, argues that students learn and retain more knowledge because the visually-based exercises are more engaging. “We have taught computer science in a very uninteresting way for a long time,” he says. “[Alice] is a frontal assault on that.”