It’s a girls’ virtual world, according to a new Sussex study. Teenage boys are perhaps more known for playing computer games but girls are better at making them. Researchers in the University’s Informatics department asked pupils at a secondary school to design and program their own computer game using a new visual programming language that shows pupils the computer programs they have written in plain English.
Dr Kate Howland and Dr Judith Good found that the girls in the classroom wrote more complex programs in their games than the boys and also learnt more about coding compared to the boys.
From the press release:
There are persistent concerns about the underrepresentation of women in computing – only 17% of the UK’s computer science graduates in 2012 were female, despite a promising reduction of the gender gap in maths-related subjects at school level.
Some believe that girls are put off in their teenage years by the common portrayal of the ‘nerdy boy’ in TV and film.
This new study, published in the January 2015 issue of the journal Computers & Education, suggests that girls can be motivated to explore programming and create rich gameplay experiences by building on their skills in literacy and storytelling.
Dr Good says: “Given that girls’ attainment in literacy is higher than boys across all stages of the primary and secondary school curriculum, it may be that explicitly tying programming to an activity that they tend to do well in leads to a commensurate gain in their programming skills.
“In other words, if girls’ stories are typically more complex and well developed, then when creating stories in games, their stories will also require more sophisticated programs in order for their games to work.”
The young people, aged 12-13, spent eight weeks developing their own 3D, role-playing games, using software made available with the popular medieval fantasy game Neverwinter Nights 2, which is based on the popular Dungeons & Dragons franchise.
Games like these are built on ‘scripts’, simple programs that describe what happens if or when a particular condition is met – e.g. if the player kills the dragon, a message is displayed on screen. However, many young people with no prior programming experience are daunted by the complexity of the coding languages used to build these scripts.
So, Dr Howland and Dr Good developed a new programming language called Flip that ‘scaffolds’ pupils as they script events within their game. It uses a simple interface in which users create scripts by connecting graphical blocks together. As well as generating the code to build the game, Flip also translates these scripts into plain English to help pupils understand the scripts they have created.
A range of different events were used by the pupils to trigger their scripts – for example, when a character is killed, or says something, or moves into a particular part of the screen.
The girls used seven different triggers – almost twice as many as the boys – and were much more successful at creating complex scripts with two or more parts and conditional clauses.
Boys nearly always chose to trigger their scripts on when a character says something, which is the first and easiest trigger to learn.
Ok, and now start humming this song:
But just wait a second, there could also be another explanation:
This issue also relates to a limitation of the current study, namely, that there was a significant difference between girls and boys in terms of their computational understanding on the pre-test. As none of the pupils had any prior programming experience, it may be that the design of the pre and post tests, which relied on pupils writing their answers in natural language, may have given the girls an advantage, given the differences in literacy attainment noted above.
Abstract of the study (free access when I wrote this blogpost):
Teaching basic computational concepts and skills to school children is currently a curricular focus in many countries. Running parallel to this trend are advances in programming environments and teaching methods which aim to make computer science more accessible, and more motivating. In this paper, we describe the design and evaluation of Flip, a programming language that aims to help 11–15 year olds develop computational skills through creating their own 3D role-playing games. Flip has two main components: 1) a visual language (based on an interlocking blocks design common to many current visual languages), and 2) a dynamically updating natural language version of the script under creation. This programming-language/natural-language pairing is a unique feature of Flip, designed to allow learners to draw upon their familiarity with natural language to “decode the code”. Flip aims to support young people in developing an understanding of computational concepts as well as the skills to use and communicate these concepts effectively. This paper investigates the extent to which Flip can be used by young people to create working scripts, and examines improvements in their expression of computational rules and concepts after using the tool. We provide an overview of the design and implementation of Flip before describing an evaluation study carried out with 12–13 year olds in a naturalistic setting. Over the course of 8 weeks, the majority of students were able to use Flip to write small programs to bring about interactive behaviours in the games they created. Furthermore, there was a significant improvement in their computational communication after using Flip (as measured by a pre/post-test). An additional finding was that girls wrote more, and more complex, scripts than did boys, and there was a trend for girls to show greater learning gains relative to the boys.