More than Fun and Games: New Computer Science Courses Attract Students with Educational Games

REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 12, 2005 — The fact that Chris Mattera and Mike Dumont spent part of their summer vacation playing computer games wouldn’t surprise anybody who knows them — or most teen-age boys these days.

Instead of spending all of their time at the beach or the ballpark, Mattera and Dumont waged pixilated battles between gruesome-looking alligators, other amphibian warriors and the occasional fighting machine in a computer game called “Pond Wars.”

What might surprise some is that Mattera, Dumont and others who took part in the aquatic battles were doing more than playing computer games. They were building them, and, in the process, learning the basics of computer science in a novel program developed at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) with funding and support from Microsoft Research External Research Programs group (MSR ER&P).

The Reality and Programming Together (RAPT) program is a prime example of how U.S. colleges and universities hope to reverse the ongoing decline in computer science enrollment by taking advantage of the nearly ubiquitous interest among teens and twentysomethings in computer games. This new breed of computer science classes seeks to capture and retain students, as well as improve instruction, by integrating the basics of computer science into lessons on designing and building computer games.

The RIT program also demonstrates the vital role of technology leaders such as Microsoft in the success and adoption of these new approaches to computer science instruction.

MSR ER&P, Microsoft’s education and government through its university-outreach arm, has invested nearly US$800,000 in recent years to help sponsor and promote the development of game-centric programs such as RAPT. Microsoft also builds software tools vital to game makers, and MSR lends the assistance of top researchers to computer science programs around the world.

“The decline in computer science enrollment threatens virtually every U.S. industry that relies on software innovation to build its future,” says John Nordlinger, program manager, Gaming, MSR ER&P. “Developing new, more enticing computer science programs is too large a task for academia to tackle on its own. Microsoft and other IT companies must work alongside academia and help provide funding and other resources necessary to reignite interest in computer science.”

Computer Science Enrollment Down 60 Percent since 2000

In sharp contrast to the boom years of the 1990s, computer science enrollment has declined across North America each of the past four years, according to the Computer Research Association, a professional organization for computer professors. The percentage of incoming undergraduates indicating plans to major in computer science declined by more than 60 percent between fall 2000 and 2004, and is now 70 percent lower than its peak in the early 1980s. And the number of women and minority students, while low in the past, has declined at an even faster rate, educators say.

Educators point to the demise of many Internet start-ups early in the decade as one reason for the enrollment drop. Many students who viewed computer science as a route to quick wealth now pursue other majors. Also, the growth of software industries in other parts of the world has convinced some students that there will be fewer jobs in North America that require computer science degrees, educators say. In fact, computer systems analysts, database administrators and computer scientists are expected to be among the fastest growing occupations in the United States through the end of the decade and beyond, increasing 36 percent or more through 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A growing number of educators notice another factor for the enrollment slide: The way computer science is taught, particularly introductory and other lower-level courses.

“We have done such a bad job of teaching computer science that students had every right to think that the only reason you pursue this major is to make a lot of money,” says Randy Pausch, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center, another recipient of an MSR ERP award.

Pausch and other proponents of new approaches to computer science instruction say many introductory classes fail to capture the hearts or the minds of today’s students, particularly those with less background in math and science. Too many of these classes require students to learn the basics of computer science by creating programs that sort numbers or perform other rudimentary tasks divorced from real-world applications or interests. Students also get overwhelmed by the object-oriented approach used in many introductory classes. This approach requires them to begin mastering abstract concepts such as objects and classes immediately, in addition to programming syntax and more fundamental concepts such as types, variables, values and references, Pausch says.

Pausch developed a teaching tool called Alice as an alternative. Alice allows novice students to learn basic computer science concepts while creating movies and games in a virtual 3-D world. Students develop and manipulate onscreen objects, such as rudimentary frogs and penguins, free from the complexity of Java, C++ or C# programs or programming syntax, on which the students then concentrate after mastering the basics of programming.

Studies funded by the National Science Foundation have found that the student retention rate in introductory level computer science classes that use Alice nearly double – from 47 percent to 88 percent — among students who are traditionally at risk of dropping out of computer science. On average, these students earned B-level grades, higher than the C-level grades earned by at-risk students who didn’t use Alice.

RIT’s RAPT program offered similar games with more menacing creatures to help solidify the interest of freshman Mattera, 17, in computer science. The 10-week program, offered for the first time this summer, also helped him master computer science concepts that he didn’t grasp when he took a traditional introductory class at a community college near his home in Howell, N.J.

Concepts such as inheritance and switch statements finally made sense when he learned how they applied to Pesci, the fighting fish he created, and the other characters the students used in “Pond Wars” and other projects.

“It all made sense to me because I was actually able to see what was going on,” Mattera says.

Dumont, 18, of Rochester, N.H., recognized the benefits of RAPT after the class did a week’s worth of lessons with traditional, non-gaming labs. When the class reverted back to game-related instruction, the lessons were much more difficult because he had to consider so many more design elements and programming variables. “It was a lot harder, but I didn’t mind because it was a lot more interesting and I learned a lot more,” says Dumont, who has been playing console games since he was 7.

In addition to the motivational power of games, RAPT allows Jessica Bayliss, an assistant professor in the RIT Department of Computer Science, to take a multidisciplinary approach that isn’t possible with most traditional computer science lessons. She can integrate concepts from English, physics, biology and art into the games, so students can grasp the larger context of the skills they’re learning and appeal to a broader array of students, including women, she says.

Of the 37 students who completed the pilot program, all but three recently passed the placement exam for Computer Science 102. The 92-percent success rate is only slightly better than the rate for students who take the traditional introductory course. But Bayliss anticipates the improvement will increase when students take RAPT on campus during the academic year. The pilot was offered to students who attended via conferencing software from remote locations.

“When students understand why they need to know a particular concept, they are more likely to remember it,” Bayliss says. “Games are an interesting application area that is not only fun, but that often pushes the boundaries of what we can do in computer science.”

Success Alone Won’t Trigger Change

Despite the success of RAPT, Alice and other game-related instruction, proponents don’t expect these new approaches to become mainstream overnight, if for no other reason than the shortage of funding at many colleges and universities to develop similar programs.

Professor Mike Zyda, director of the Viterbi School of Engineering’s GamePipe Laboratory at the University of Southern California, says many computer science programs are caught in a Catch 22: They need these new, more engaging computer science classes to rebuild their enrollment, but they can’t get much in the way of funding to do so from the university because their enrollments are down.

Zyda, the original principal investigator and development director for the online game America’s Army, has had to rely on volunteer help from existing faculty to build a computer science degree program in game development. A supportive engineering dean at USC, Yannis Yortsos, recently donated laboratory space and equipment and software funding. But, Zyda says, acquiring funding for additional faculty in new areas such as game development can be hard to come by these days until enrollment increases. “If the game and IT industry wants the next generation of programmers, it needs to help provide the funding,” Zyda says, bluntly.

MSR ER&P introduced the annual Computer Gaming Curriculum RFP Awards earlier this year to help plug this funding gap, as well as create curricula for institutions around the world to copy and use. The awards are an example of ways in which MSR ER&P helps faculty at leading academic institutions worldwide develop innovative curriculum and explore new areas of research. The group provides funding and other resources with the potential to accelerate computer science, transform other disciplines through computing, and attract and retain the best and brightest students to computing programs.

Six colleges and universities will receive a total nearly $500,000 in Computer Gaming Curriculum RFP Awards this year to enhance computer science and game-design curricula through the introduction of graphics, audio production, performance management and computer science topics relevant to game development. These awards are in addition to about $300,000 in funding provided to other universities to develop similar instructional and gaming curricula.

Nordlinger says a broad range of U.S. and other industries, not large IT companies such as Microsoft, will be the primary beneficiaries if these awards help restore computer science enrollments.

“Microsoft and other top IT companies are lucky. We tend to get the first pick of the top computer science graduates,” Nordlinger says. “But the talent pool has to be much deeper to serve the growing number of U.S. businesses that need more and better employees with computer science training to build the IT systems they’ll need to remain competitive.”

To promote widespread adoption of the grant-sponsored curricula, MSR ER&P requires grant participants to offer their curriculum, game engines and other innovative assets at no charge on Microsoft’s MSDN AA Developer Network Curriculum Repository Web site. For the last few months, two game-related courses sponsored by MSR were among the 10 most popular courses in the MSDN Curriculum Repository. Software Engineering for Computer Games, a course developed by Flavio Soares Correa da Silva, an instructor at the University of Sao Paulo, was the second most popular offering, attracting 833 page views in the four days after it was posted on Aug. 26.

Da Silva’s decision to compete for one of the MSR grants was chiefly influenced by MSR researcher Steven Drucker, who visited the University of Sao Paulo in January during one of his routine visits to college and university campuses. Drucker was impressed by the high caliber of work being done in the area of computer games, and recommended the university for one of the grants.

Although Brazil isn’t experiencing the same decline in computer science enrollment as the United States, da Silva says the quality of computer science instruction varies greatly among private and public universities. He hopes the lab will help raise the bar throughout Brazil and the rest of the world.

“Developing new curricula takes significant resources in time and equipment,” Borliss says. “These programs would not happen without MSR ER&P’s support.”

Support Includes Lobbying, Sponsorships and Enhanced Development Tools

Microsoft’s and MSR’s efforts to promote new instructional methods and rebuild enrollment in computer science programs go far beyond the RFP awards.

In addition to funding, proponents of game-related instruction say they need help changing perceptions about computer games, particularly among veteran computer science faculty who never played computer games when they were growing up.

Microsoft and MSR have sought to take a leadership role in these efforts by promoting potential applications for serious games and lobbying government, academia and business about the benefits of game-related instruction in computer science, Nordlinger says. Microsoft’s annual, high-profile Imagine Cup programming contest, which draws more than 10,000 students and instructors from more than 90 countries each year, offers an online invitational competition that requires college and university students to combine coding skills and algorithmic ability to develop a multiplayer head-to-head game. There is also a visual-gaming invitational for high-school students.

Nordlinger will take the campaign to change perceptions to Washington, D.C., when he and representatives from game-oriented companies will address the National Academy of Sciences on Nov. 2 about the effectiveness of games in computer science instruction. He also will make a similar presentation at this year’s Serious Games Summit, Oct. 31-Nov. 1.

To help promote the development of computer games for and by women, Microsoft helps sponsor the annual Austin Game Conference and Women’s Game Conference, and this year will cover all expenses for 10 female computer science majors to attend both conferences, Oct. 26-28 in Austin, Tex. Microsoft also will cover registration fees for 10 female students to the Serious Games Conference in Washington, D.C.

Creating Tools for Game Creators

Proponents of game-related instruction also note the important role that Microsoft’s tools and other developer resources have played in the overall growth of computer gaming. John Laird, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, says the Direct X framework developed by Microsoft may be the company’s most important contribution to game development and the improvement of computer science instruction with games.

Introduced by Microsoft in 1995, DirectX provides a standard platform for developing games for Windows-based PCs without having to write hardware-specific code. Before DirectX, the development tools for console and computer games weren’t available to students, Laird says.

“DirectX was the key,” he says, “to making game programming possible for many more people.”

This fall, MSR will begin distributing a free Computer Gaming Resource Kit for Teaching and Research. The kit provides computer science instructors the tools and tips they need to use DirectX to enhance their lessons. Also, a three-day MSR-sponsored Academic Days symposium on gaming will provide in-depth on DirectX and other gaming technologies to more than 200 U.S. academics in mid-November.

More Work Remains

However broad the range of support offered by Microsoft and MSR for game-based instruction, Nordlinger realizes there’s much more work to do, as do the colleges and universities that rely on Microsoft’s support.

Somewhat different game technology and techniques – from storytelling to networking – may be needed to attract more women and minority students to computer science, proponents say. Caitlin Kelleher, a doctoral student who works with Pausch, has developed and begun testing an alternative version of Alice with Girl Scout troops in Pennsylvania. She presents the activity as storytelling and movie-making, rather than programming.  If she tells the girls too early that they’ll be learning to program computers, many don’t want to try, for fear either that they can’t or that it won’t be interesting, Pausch says. When they’ve succeeded, she tells them that they’ve also learned how to program.

“Unlike many challenges in computer science, those we attempt to solve in education never really go away,” Nordlinger says. “They simply morph, as the needs of academia and industry change, into new challenges that we must all must work together to address.”

Related Posts

More Women in Technology Needed

Women currently hold only a quarter of IT-related jobs. Microsoft’s Imagine Cup competition helps spread the message that more women are wanted in technical computing roles, and conveys the far-reaching impact that careers in computing can have.