Ph.D. student Caroline Pitt explores gaming as an educational tool

By Samantha Herndon Monday, April 10, 2023

Caroline Pitt grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons; her mother had a copy of the original edition. “This has been a part of my life for my whole life!” she said. “It’s always fun to introduce new people to the hobby.” Past characters of Pitt’s include a transmutation wizard, a homebrew harvest cleric, and a wild magic barbarian who played bagpipes. 

Now, as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington Information School, Pitt is combining her interests in tabletop role-playing games with her research in co-design, human-computer interaction, research-practice partnerships and related fields. She collaborated with researchers at Foundry10 and Game to Grow on a study using Dungeons & Dragons as an educational tool and recently published a white paper on their findings.

An internship at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where Pitt worked on educational videos among other projects, sparked her interest in informal education. She brought that interest to the iSchool doctoral program, along with her skills in video editing and a background in social sciences, having majored in Psychology and Anthropology at the University of Maryland. 

A special topics course on computer-supported collaborative learning, taught by Associate Professor Jason Yip, helped Pitt strengthen her foothold in the subject matter, as have other courses in the iSchool and College of Education. Now that she has completed most elements of her doctorate, Pitt teaches a course on Learning Sciences for Informatics, exploring the relationship between education and technology.

Pitt’s dissertation research investigates questions of how research projects end besides simply running out of funding, and it addresses questions of research ethics and community involvement in research. Yip, her co-advisor, said Pitt’s work “brings together her interests in human-computer interaction, education, design-based research and tabletop games.” Pitt has worked on Yip’s KidsTeam UW and Science Everywhere projects, in which she delved deeper into design-based research. 

Pitt also collaborated on a project led by her other co-advisor, Associate Professor Katie Davis, at the Pacific Science Center. “We're working on building a digital badge system to find a way to showcase some of the informal learning skills that the youth pick up by working as junior science interpreters at the Science Center,” Pitt said. “We took these skills that kids are learning and visualized them into learning pathways with digital badges.” Davis said that Pitt’s work across projects has a theme of working with the people who are most affected by the research, with consideration and respect for the communities and individuals involved in a study.

These experiences showed Pitt that learning is connected across places and processes, and that it happens in a variety of settings. The concept was exciting for Pitt, who applied what she’d learned to her interest in Dungeons & Dragons during a graduate research internship with Foundry10, an education research organization that has partnered with Yip on previous projects and employs several iSchool alumni.

The internship led to Pitt’s being the first author of the new white paper, titled “How Youth Can Build Social and Emotional Skills with Tabletop Role-Playing Games: Research findings and actionable insights.” The paper has been gaining traction during a time when interest in tabletop games is on the rise, and while parents and educators deal with concerns about learning in and after the COVID pandemic. The team found that tabletop games have benefits for social-emotional learning and give young people an opportunity to practice skills of regulation, collaboration, planning, perspective-taking, and pretend play by taking on different group roles, learning from conflicts that arise, and working together as a team. The findings are being shared with game creators and educators.

“It's really fun to see both her personal and her professional passions come together like this in this research project,” said Davis. In participatory research, “It’s really important to listen authentically, and really take your lead as a researcher from the community partners. I think Caroline has been able to do that right from the beginning.”

“It's really nice to see a student take something that’s a hobby, or more than a hobby, and apply another set of questions,” Yip said. “You always hope that your advisees start to do things that are different than you, and that they become experts at these kinds of things. She is able to see the connections between that sort of gaming and the kinds of social-emotional development people need as they grow up in a digital age. I think that’s important.”