Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Computer Games as Gateway to STEM
The Story of “Game Goddess” and ATLAS Ph.D. student Kara Behnke
By Ira G. Liss

Kara Behnke could be on track to become the unofficial “Game Goddess” of the world. Having a passion for computer games – playing them, designing them, teaching others to design them and using them as teaching tools – she is working towards her Ph.D. in Technology, Media and Society at CU-Boulder’s ATLAS Institute.

A Gateway to Science
Behnke believes computer games make excellent gateways to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for K-12 students who might not otherwise be attracted to these subjects. “Games are inherently fun. Young people love to play them. So why not use this basic, human desire for fun (an example of positive psychology) to motivate students in the classroom?”

National Science Foundation Programs
As part of her research, Behnke has spent 10 to 15 hours per week in a Longmont high school – part of a two-year program sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) eCSite program (pronounced “excite”), an acronym standing for “Engaging Computer Science in Traditional Education.” (The NSF is also the sponsor of her ATLAS Ph.D. fellowship.)

Diversity Issues
For decades, the computer science (CS) field – like other science and engineering fields – has had extremely low diversity or representation of ethnicities and gender, particularly women. And yet, to be competitive in a global marketplace, innovation and entrepreneurship depend upon the insights and experiences of all of us – our full range of culture, gender and ethnicity – that together make a healthy society.

To help bring diversity to these fields, the NSF eCSite and GK-12 programs explore ways to bring computer science and computational thinking to existing curricula across multi-disciplines –  including biology, health, art and music. These programs offer the expertise and passion of CS students to K-12 teachers.

Integrating Science in “Non-Science” Disciplines
In these programs, computer science and STEM content are integrated into disciplines where students are already present and motivated. The idea is that these students, given a positive experience with computational thinking, are then more likely to pursue STEM subjects in depth.
In real time, the Microsoft Kinect system scans the movements of  students while software programmed by a student team places their silhouettes in an animated graphic background.

Behnke explained, “This year, I helped an art teacher bring computer science to students at Skyline High School in Longmont. It was a very gratifying experience!”

A Game Interface for Performing Arts
Each spring, Skyline presents a showcase of student arts that include studio arts, 2D and 3D design and dance. Behnke invited students in the afterschool computer science club to collaborate with art students and participate in this art event. She showed students a brief demo of what could be done with the Microsoft Kinect system (a user interface commonly used for games run on the popular Xbox 360) and invited them to “create something cool.” 
Interactive installation designed by students under Behnke’s direction allows participants to see their image instantly transformed through the creative use of the Microsoft Kinect game controller.
"We had 20 to 30 students working on this project. For many CS students, it was the first time they worked on an art project. And for art students, it was the first time they worked with computer technology to make art.”

Kinect software captured the movements of dance students in real time. Their images were scanned and projected on to screens with colorful animated graphics integrated into the imagery. Graphic programs were designed by a team of art and computer science students. Installations were designed and set up in rich environments that invited audience participation.

Multi-Media, Multi-Disciplinary, Multi-Successful
“Their art installations and performances incorporated costume, set, environmental and graphic design along with dance, visual arts, animation and computer science – all produced by  students.” Behnke continued, 
Skyline High School student presents a set design he created in which the multimedia, interactive display and performance will be presented.

“They worked successfully in teams while using technology they had never worked with before. They saw how technology can be a wonderful tool – as creative and expressive as clay or paint. And they experienced how multiple disciplines and media can work together in exciting ways.”

An Untraditional Background
 “I came to computer science from an untraditional background.” Behnke explained. “I knew I wanted to work in the computer game industry when I came to CU. But there was little support for this when I was an undergraduate student. Computer science classes were for engineering students and I was a liberal arts student studying Japanese. The closest program I could find to what I wanted was the ATLAS Technology,Arts and Media (TAM) program (an undergraduate minor and certificate program).

“In TAM, I took an elective taught by ATLAS director John Bennett – Virtual Worlds in Second Life. In the first group to take this class, I was introduced to computer science by working with code, building virtual objects and designing programs – all while playing in Second Life, a 3D virtual world. That experience made a big impression on me.”

Independent Study Becomes Model for New Course
Behnke went on to do an independent study with Bennett designing games for the Xbox 360 using the C# programming language. Their work together became the model for a new course offering, ATLS 4519/5519, Computer Game Development.

“I became a teaching assistant for that new class. It was really satisfying to know I was instrumental – in collaboration with John Bennett – in the creation of that class. It helped affirm my view that designing and using computer games can help students of all ages (myself included!) to learn computer science plus related fields – animation, graphic design, storytelling, coding, user interface and more.”

Her Own Proof of Concept
Behnke may be her own living proof of what she believes, researches and teaches – computer games can lead to deeper learning in the applied sciences. They can bring a diversity of students to fields that currently have very limited diversity. 

Using our natural, inherent desire for fun and play, computer games can help young people discover science, mathematics and engineering – and collaborate in the ongoing creation and evolution of new, constructive technologies in a complex, ever-changing world.

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The writer, Ira G. Liss, is assistant communications director at ATLAS Institute and a performing artist. See video of his original commentary, songs and spoken word here.