UD computer science students have created learning games for middle school students.

Making learning fun, accessible

UD students create math games for middle school children

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10:19 a.m., Dec. 19, 2011--University of Delaware senior Bryan Mey understands that in order for kids to play a game, it has to be fun. He also knows that children are social by nature and enjoy playing games together.

These are some of the considerations that Mey and his teammates took into consideration when developing an interactive computer board game this semester as part of their CISC 374, Educational Games Development course in computer science.

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The game, called Shape Shifters, is a multiplayer learning game designed to teach fraction concepts to 5th and 6th graders at Chester Community Charter School (CCCS) in Chester, Pa. 

As players correctly answer multiple choice questions, their animated game piece (a circle, square, triangle or star) bounces, slinks, flies or spins toward the finish line. Players earn a random number of moves for each turn, with extra spaces awarded for correctly answering probability questions.

“The social aspect [of the game] made it about competing with friends or helping friends learn, not just beating the game, which added a really unique factor to the educational portion of the game design,” said May, a computer science major and Honors Program student.

Mey’s group was one five student teams to showcase their gaming creations Dec. 13, during the fall 2011 Educational Games Demonstration and Reception on campus. They are the fifth cohort of UD undergraduate students to complete the course since 2009. 

More than a class

Developed by Lori Pollock, professor of computer and information sciences (CIS), and Terry Harvey, CIS assistant professor, the course enables UD computer science students to develop valuable technical and communication skills, while serving their community through interaction with CCCS. The course is supported through a National Science Foundation (NSF) Broadening Participation in Computing grant.

Each semester, UD students work with CCCS teachers to design custom computer games to help their students understand fractions, grid coordinates, order of operations and other important mathematical skills. They must consider the children’s strengths and limitations, multiple learning styles and learning levels, as well as conceptually relevant ideas for the targeted grade level.

The student-created games run on XO laptops, small green and white laptop computers developed by the non-profit organization One Laptop per Child, which aims to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children. The XO laptops have a range of up to eight kilometers, making them useful for children in remote areas and in locally underrepresented communities.

Introducing a service learning component into a computer science course is a novel concept that Pollock said allows students to see a direct impact of working for an organization, rather than turning in a class project that may never be used. 

“The most powerful learning moment in the course is when teams watch middle school students use their software,” Pollock said.

Andrea Macartney, Shape Shifters team member, called it “mind-blowing; really exciting.” “You never know what a user will think of your game until you actually watch them use it,” said Macartney. 

CCCS teachers Stefanie Bajgier and Lori Foster said in an email that they were impressed by the UD students because they “listened to our needs of certain skills.”

Bajgier and Foster reported that their 6th graders “enjoyed learning about computer programming through Scratch” and even “felt that they were computer programmers.” 

Scratch is a simple click and drag software designed to help young learners understand overall concepts of computer science by connecting computer coded puzzle pieces that “program” an animated cat (Scratch) to walk, meow and more. Additionally, having the math games downloaded onto the CCCS XO laptops is an extra benefit that allows their students to “continue to practice those math skills,” the teachers said.

While math is a common theme in the games, the computational thinking concepts can also be applied to middle school science, language arts and social studies.

In addition to honing their software engineering skills, UD students gain interpersonal and teambuilding skills, and learn to communicate with non-technical audiences.

“This class really helped me develop leadership, ownership and presentation skills that I can use through life and my career,” added Macartney, who graduates from UD this month and begins work as an application developer for JP Morgan Chase in January.

Gaining momentum outside UD

As the course gains popularity on campus, it is also beginning to attract attention outside the University. 

A Microsoft researcher visited UD’s Newark campus recently to investigate ways to use the group’s games as a basis for teaching computational thinking. Pollock and Harvey will soon publish the student-created games on the XO website for use by children in Australia where the One Laptop per Child program is quite active. They have also initiated conversations with faculty at North Carolina State University about developing a spring break service learning opportunity in Haiti for students at both institutions.

“Collaborating with Microsoft would make the project scalable, while partnering with NC State would strengthen the program’s service learning component,” Harvey said. 

Having the students’ games used by children in Australia would generate fundamental study data about how children learn and could lead to future projects.

Article by Karen B. Roberts

Photos by Evan Krape

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