Using Game Design Mechanics as Metaphors to Enhance Learning of Introductory Programming Concepts

Saturday, September 1, 2018 to Monday, August 31, 2020
Resource Type:
Project Descriptions
Environment Type: 
Media and Technology, Games, Simulations, and Interactives
General Public | Museum/ISE Professionals | Evaluators
Computing and information science
Access and Inclusion: 
Women and Girls
Northeastern University

This project tackles the urgent needs of the nation to engage people of all ages in computational thinking and help them learn basic computer science concepts with a unique and innovative approach of structured in-game computer program coding. Researchers will explore the design and development of a 3D puzzle-based game, called May's Journey, in which players solve an environmental maze by using the game's pseudo code to manipulate game objects. The game is designed to teach introductory but foundational concepts of computer programming including abstraction, modularity, reusability, and debugging by focusing players on logic and concepts while asking them to type simple instructions in a simplified programming language designed for novices. The game design in this project differs from today's block-based programming learning approaches that are often too far from actual computer code, and also differs from professional programming languages which are too complex for novices. The game and its embedded programming language learning are designed to be responsive to the progress of the learner throughout the game, transitioning from pseudo code to the embedded programming language itself. Error messages for debugging are also designed to be adaptive to players' behavior in the game. Using extensive log data collected from people playing the game, researchers can study how people learn computer programming. Such knowledge can advance understanding of the learning processes in computer programming education. Additionally, this work emphasizes the use of games as informal learning environments as they are accessible and fun, drawing attention and retention of many learners of different age groups with the potential to change attitudes towards computer programming across different populations. This project is co-funded by the STEM + Computing (STEM+C) program that supports research and development to understand the integration of computing and computational thinking in STEM learning, and the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program that funds innovative research, approaches and resources for use in a variety of settings with its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments.

The project's formative and summative evaluation methods, including surveys, expert reviews of learners' computer code developed in the game, and interviews, are used to gauge learners' engagement as well as learning. In exploring learning, researchers aim to understand how players build implicit computer science knowledge through gameplay and how that gameplay relates to their performance on external transfer tasks. The project will answer the following three research questions: (1) Can observers reliably detect and label patterns of gameplay that provide evidence of learning or misconceptions regarding the four computer science constructs - abstraction, modularity, debugging and semantics - that learners exhibit playing May's Journey? (2) How does learner's implicit knowledge of these computer science constructs change over time and do those patterns vary by gender and prior programming experiences? (3) Is there a strong correlation between implicit learning measures and transfer of CS concepts: modularity, debugging, semantics, and abstraction? How do these correlations vary across elements of the game? This work will result in several outcomes: game design metaphors tested for their learning and engagement value that can be abstracted and embedded in different games. This project will also contribute patterns and an understanding of how people learn and engage in problem solving using concepts of abstraction, modularity, debugging and semantics. These outcomes will lead to advancement in knowledge in the learning sciences as well as the design of educational games that enrich STEM learning, particularly in programming and computational thinking. In addition, this project will engage female participants and underserved populations through partnering organizations including National Girls Collaborative project.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Funding Program: 
STEM + Computing (STEM+C) Part, AISL
Award Number: 
Funding Amount: 

Team Members

Magy Seif El-NasrMagy Seif El-NasrPrincipal Investigator

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