CU-Boulder nets $1.5 million NSF grant
to continue video game design research

The University of Colorado Boulder exceeded its own researchers’ expectations with its iDREAMS Scalable Game Design Summer Institute, and that success has been rewarded with a new $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. CU-Boulder researchers are tracking how video game design engages students in computational thinking and STEM simulation design.

STEM simulations are computer programs that model natural and social phenomena, such as how a forest fire spreads from tree to tree. Students design these simulations to learn science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

The new NSF-funded Computational Thinking for Teaching Computing grant to computer science Professor Alexander Repenning and co-investigators Kris Gutiérrez and David Webb from the School of Education, will build on previous work the team did on video game design as a motivational tool for computer science education.

That project, called iDREAMS, involved more than 100 teachers and over 8,000 students producing more than 10,000 games and STEM simulations. The project started in Colorado but quickly expanded to Alaska, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming where it gave teachers the tools and support needed to take the video game design curriculum into their classrooms.  Participation far exceeded initial projections for the iDREAMS research project of about 40 teachers and 1,200 students over three years.

The curriculum, as taught through the Scalable Game Design Summer Institute on the CU-Boulder campus during the past three summers, was found to be highly effective across a wide spectrum of communities, including technology hubs, urban/inner city, rural and remote Native American communities.

The research team was encouraged by the extraordinarily high levels of participation and motivation, especially for girls and underrepresented students: 45 percent of participants were girls and 56 percent were underrepresented minorities. Motivation, expressed by a willingness to take more game design classes, was determined to be 74 percent for boys, 64 percent for girls, 71 percent for white participants and 69 percent for minority students.

In the new project, student performance data using measures of computational thinking will be integrated to further analyze how video game design helps students reason and learn STEM content. The performance data will be used to enhance the Scalable Game Design curriculum and professional development opportunities for teachers.

“I am extremely excited to see the enormous energy of students and teachers involved in the Scalable Game Design project,” said Repenning. “They have shown that it really is possible to bring computer science education to public schools and integrate it into the curriculum. The Scalable Game Design curriculum includes problem solving, logical thinking skills and sophisticated math and science concepts highly relevant to STEM and computer science education.”

CU-Boulder will again host its popular Scalable Game Design Summer Institute for K-12 teachers this summer, June 4-10, as part of its long-term efforts to improve and broaden participation in computer science education.

“We now want to analyze the impact of the research on students’ motivation and what they are learning, continuing the success of the iDREAMS project,” said Webb. “With the new grant, we can build up more robust research instruments that can be used for computer science education. We will continue to be very intentional regarding our research of particular populations and will be broadening the scope of groups studied.”

Project partners include AgentSheets Inc., the Computer Science Teachers Association, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the Shodor Foundation and SRI International.

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