Intelligent Machines

Gaming Makes the Grade

Game-based curricula in universities may just save computer science from itself.

For reasons academicians don’t entirely understand, undergraduate enrollment in U.S. computer science departments continues to drop precipitously.

Whether the cause is the dot-com bust, the off-shoring of software jobs, cutbacks in federal funding for computer science departments, tighter immigration laws, or just a cyclical shift in students’ interests, it’s a problem that colleges and universities – not to mention Microsoft and other U.S. software companies, which depend on a flow of talented computer-science graduates – are taking seriously.

In its latest effort, Microsoft is funding university projects that rewrite computer science curricula around something everyone knows students like: computer games. This year the company awarded six universities a total of $480,000 to create new kinds of computer science courses in which students learn programming techniques using gaming software models. As part of the effort, teaching modules and entire courses will be offered free to the public in the company’s Curriculum Repository.

“It’s hard for faculty to keep up to date,” says Sailesh Chutani, director of external research and programs at Microsoft. “We want to ensure that educational systems stay vibrant, attract top-notch talent, and keep them.”

There’s nothing shocking about the use of computer gaming in classrooms, of course. Today, at least 20 to 30 universities have game design courses, and a dozen or so offer it as a degree. The goal has been to replace the earlier “drill-and-practice” methods of interactive learning with a new generation of pedagogical tools, for all educational levels and in subjects ranging from science, mathematics, and engineering, to social sciences and humanities.

One of the seminal programs in the field was MIT’s Games-To-Teach Project, another Microsoft collaboration. Since 2001, it’s developed more than a dozen interactive and Web-based games, with names like “Replicate,” “Biohazard,” and “Revolution.” But today, developers of game-based curricula are focusing on how games can enliven computer science itself, perhaps attracting and keeping more computer science majors.

It’s not a moment too soon. The number of students majoring in computer science has dropped by around 50 percent since the 1980s. Enrollment in the 2003-04 academic year was down 10 percent from a year earlier. And among female students, the dropoff is even worse: 70 percent fewer women are majoring in CS today than in the early 1980s.

Offering classes that use games to teach programming methods, or that let students build their own games, is a strategy that could halt the trend, academics and industry representatives hope. “It’s difficult to find areas that all students have some background knowledge in and that are engaging and challenging,” says Jessica Bayliss, a professor of computer science at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and one of the Microsoft awardees. “Everyone has played games, even it’s just solitaire or tic-tac-toe…Not everyone has worked with employee databases.”

And it hasn’t escaped anyone that games are some of the most successful software products on the market today. “Initially it looks interesting and fun [to students],” says John Nordlinger, program manager for Microsoft’s Computer Gaming Curriculum, “and there’s money here if you connect with the right company.”

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.”

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