Happy Campers

Here’s a paradox: Despite the enormous popularity of computer-related activities such as social media and computer gaming, most users assume the activity of actually programming a computer to be enormously difficult and beyond their reach. So, how can programming be made accessible? The answer may lie in summer camp. More specifically, a week-long camp for high-school girls titled, “Computers Demystified: Your Chance to Learn Everything You Wanted to Know About Computers But Were Afraid to Ask!”

We’ll get to the camp in a moment. But first, in talking about making programming more accessible, we need to talk about accessible to whom.

When iSchool Assistant Professor Andrew Ko discusses the need for programming skills, he isn’t talking about professional coders and systems architects. Ko, whose expertise includes end-user programming, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and software engineering, notes that myriad classes and instructional programs exist to fill those needs.

Instead, when citing an example of where training tools are needed, Ko talks about his retired mother. “She was a school teacher, and spent all kinds of time in Microsoft Excel, writing spreadsheets with all kinds of formulas to calculate grades,” he says. “There’s a lot of people in the world that need to know just a little about programming—not to create giant systems, but to streamline processes and make computations.”

In other words, don’t think high-tech and mega corporations. Think mid-level employees, small business, sole proprietorships, and emerging economies. The global need for rudimentary programming skills in our increasingly information-driven world is vast.  “The challenge is, how can we teach all these people in an engaging way, and at scale, rather than one-classroom at a time?” says Ko.

If Ko and his colleagues are correct, the answer could lie in leveraging the popular activity of online computer gaming. “Our idea is, what if we turn the activity of programming into an online game?” says Ko. “Where we take all the activities that are involved in programming, and in finding and fixing bugs in programs, and put them into game mechanics that make those activities more engaging.

“So in the end, instead of learning game mechanics that are only really relevant in the game, you learn game mechanics that are relevant to all kinds of other programming activities.”

Ko says he spent four years thinking about this solution, in conjunction with iSchool Ph.D. Candidate Michael Lee (pictured with students). Eventually, the vision of game-based computing education grew into a National Science Foundation grant. Ko was Principal Investigator, along Co-PIs Margaret Burnett of Oregon State University and Katherine Law of Oregon State.

And this where the summer camp enters the picture.

“The camps come into play as a test bed for the game,” says Ko. “It’s partly a way for us to get feedback about what’s working in the game and what’s not, and partly away to impact our local community.”

The summer camp was held over the course of the week of July 29 through August 2 in the iSchool computer lab. It was attended by a group of 15 high-school aged girls divided into teams. For three hours each day, they played a beta version of the game Ko and his colleagues are developing. They were also given presentations and career advice from college and early career women.

“The protagonist of the game is Gidget, a robot that was damaged on its way to save animals at a chemical spill,” explains Lee, who served as the camp’s principal instructor. “The players team up with Gidget to solve puzzles for each level. The robot provides code that isn’t entirely correct, and it’s the job of the player to look at the code and modify it in a way that satisfies the goals.” Like any good computer game, the challenges become increasingly complex; as players advance, so does the level of creativity, with players eventually programming their own levels and creating stories around them.

The iSchool camp was actually the second in a series that will be held over a three-year span. The first was conducted in Corvallis by Co-PI Burnett. That camp was a mix of ten boys and eight girls. For the second camp at the iSchool, Ko and his team went with the exclusively girl format in order to focus on interactions from a different user group.

“We’re trying to design learning technologies that are just as successful for girls as they are for boys,” Ko explains. “Again, we want to make this usable by a large audience. A lot of learning technologies for computing education are focused on features and environments that are primarily attractive to boys.

“It’s not that the game is designed for girls. It’s that it’s designed in such a way that it will hopefully be more effective for everyone, not just boys that already have an interest in programming. We try to design an environment that provides a lot more direct instruction and gives them a path to follow. It provides a lot of explicit explanation of concepts and computing while still giving them a chance to be creative throughout the process.”

Lee notes that the level-creating phase is where the creativity really comes out, with participants making suggestions for characters, objects and environments that should be added. Working with an artist, the team was able to incorporate many of these suggestions during the course of the camp. This was very exciting for participants, who suddenly found themselves in the role of game designers.

Interestingly, the experience parallels what Lee says he has observed in computer science courses. “A lot of students come in with the idea they’re not smart enough to do computer science,” he explains. “But once you show that computer science just requires a different way of thinking, people are more willing to accept that they can do it.”

Burnett echoes this sentiment in describing the experience at the first camp in Corvallis. “By the end of the camp, they figure out that picking up this kind of skill is a ‘brain-as-muscle’ sort of thing,” she explains. “Nobody really knows how to do anything when they’re born, and the thing that makes them better is practice. So they come to realize that if there are people in the room that are better than them, it’s because those people have been working out that part of their brain for a while.

“By the end of the camp at OSU, a lot of the students were really interested in various ways you can pursue computing-related careers.”

The hope of Ko and his fellow researchers is that this project can deliver that level of self-confidence to millions of people worldwide. And as anyone in the iSchool can tell you, this is precisely the kind of empowerment that HCI seeks to foster.

“From an information perspective, HCI is really a question of how you present and deliver information and content and experience in a way that people can actually understand and comprehend and consume,” Ko concludes. “It’s about figuring out effective ways of structuring, configuring, presenting and explaining information for people.”

Story by Clark Heideger