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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Got Game: How to Keep Girls Interested in Computer Science

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

When the regular school day ends at Maryland's Springbrook High School, the fun begins in earnest for girls who are part of an after-school club that focuses on game programming. They not only excel at technology challenges, says their teacher, Pat Yongpradit, but they are breaking a longstanding -- and worrisome -- trend in the field of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Instead of avoiding higher-level classes in computer science, these girls are signing up in droves.

How to get more girls interested in STEM is a question that has perplexed everyone from social scientists to corporate leaders worried about a workforce shortage of engineers and scientists. "Why So Few?" Is a report released earlier this year by the American Association of University Women that paints a confusing picture. Girls are rapidly closing the achievement gap in math during high school yet veer away from STEM majors in college. The numbers get worse in graduate school.

Other researchers have noted a paradox between "performance and persistence" among women in technology courses. Why do female students who do well academically exit the STEM pipeline?

An Entertaining Solution

Yongpradit came up with his novel approach three years ago. He started with a simple observation. "In my entry-level computer science classes, I had about 30 percent girls. In my upper-level classes," says the 10-year teaching veteran, "the numbers dropped off, even though girls were good at programming. I wondered why."

So he asked them. Girls told him that they didn't like the environment of the upper-level classes, which they saw as dominated by "geeky boys." Based on his own experience, Yongpradit says, "I know that technology can be a cool, social, hip thing. It doesn't have to be only for boys who are interested in games about shooting. It can be so much more than that -- and in the real world, it is."

The after-school club offers girls a distinctly different environment. "They form a bond," their teacher says, while working in an informal learning setting. They cheer each other on as they tackle difficult programming challenges. "We touch on programming for games in class, but this is more advanced," he adds. Specifically, they develop games for the Zune media player, a device most are already familiar with. Their focus may be entertainment technology, "but this involves rigorous, academic content," adds Yongpradit. Girls also gain real-world experience working as a team, with some specializing in art creation and others focused on coding.

Global Recognition

In recognition of his creative teaching approach, Yongpradit received a top honor at the Microsoft Innovative Education Forum held recently in South Africa. Winner of first prize for his project, "Game Programming with the Zune to Promote High School Women in Technology," he was the only U.S. educator among the dozen finalists selected from an international pool of 200,000 competitors.

Meeting educators from around the world at the forum gave Yongpradit more ideas to bring back to Springbrook High, which enrolls about 1,800 students in a suburb of Washington, D.C. He anticipates getting his students involved in global collaborations, thanks to contacts he made in South Africa. He is also moving ahead with new ideas to "teach computer science in a social context." For example, he says, students can learn about object-oriented programming by developing a serious game about the challenges faced by street children in South Africa. "You can use code to represent their situation and explore deeply what they go through." He suspects that such challenges are likely to appeal to female students. "Girls want meaning," he says, "especially social meaning."

Yongpradit's quest to make computer science more inviting is paying off. His school recently added a second computer science teacher to accommodate the increased enrollment in introductory classes, "and we're retaining more girls for the higher-level classes," he adds. "Computer science is for all kinds of people. You don't have to fit any stereotypes. You can be female or someone who's into sports. More diversity is good for the whole field."

What are you doing to help raise awareness of computer science as a field open to everyone? Computer Science Education Week takes place Dec. 5-11. Make a pledge to participate, and please tell us about your efforts.

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