Amy Ko awarded $600K NSF grant to teach computer skills to teens through social gaming

Over 90% of American teen girls play computer games such as Farmville and Bejeweled Blitz every day, sharing with friends and family, learning social and marketplace skills and having fun.

iSchool Professor Amy Ko believes these games can be more than social entertainment: She wants to help teens learn how to write and debug computer programs while they play on them. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has agreed to fund a three-year project to explore Ko’s ideas.

Ko’s prior research suggests that people who play online games can also learn computer programming concepts, debugging skills and basic algorithm and data structure design. The new project will investigate how to teach these skills in personalized, social and online learning settings with a focus on teens.

“Games can be quite good at teaching skills, but the skills they teach aren’t always that useful in the real world. The idea behind this project is to create a social game that is both fun and teaches the next generation of software developers, testers, and designers. At the same time, we’ll be doing basic research on how to best teach basic computing concepts online.”

The research team includes Ko, professor Margaret Burnett from Oregon State University’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Catherine Law, the director of Oregon State’s STEM Academy. Together with their graduate students they will create an interactive website that offers debugging puzzles to learners, allowing them learn diagnostic strategies and computing concepts at their own pace and in collaboration with their peers.

As with most successful social games, players will be able to share their achievements on Facebook, ask for help, and cultivate their status as they build their online game community. Players who master the game can then design their own puzzles to share with others.

The game will be tested through a series of annual summer camps at both the University of Washington and Oregon State University, helping the researchers to evaluate the game’s ability to engage teens in learning foundational computing skills. Two hundred teens are expected to participate, with 50% from underrepresented communities.

This three-year project is part of a larger NSF effort to find effective ways to increase both computing literacy and interest in computing careers on the part of U.S. teens. The focus on social learning is particularly important for broadening participation in computing, allowing teens to learn computing in supportive and collaborative settings, rather than the highly competitive settings that tend to deter many teens from learning more about computing.