Engage Enhances STEM Skills
October 3, 2016
An interdisciplinary team of researchers from North Carolina State
University and the University of Florida is launching an initiative that
will use a custom-designed video game to boost computational thinking in
middle school science classrooms. The goal is not only to improve
educational outcomes, but also to foster gender and racial diversity in
computer science and other science, technology, engineering and
mathematics (STEM) fields.
Development and testing of the game, as well as its related educational
curriculum, is powered by a three-year, $2.49 million grant from the
National Science Foundation.
Still from the game Engage, which
researchers will use to address diversity issues in STEM fields.
“Science classes are not solely about
teaching students a bunch of facts, but about teaching young people how
to think about science, engineering and problem solving,” says Eric
Wiebe, a professor of STEM education at NC State and co-principal
investigator (co-PI) on the project.
“To that end, the next generation science education standards include a
set of practices to be incorporated into K-12 classrooms,” says Wiebe,
who is also a senior research fellow at the Friday Institute for
Educational Innovation. “One of those practices is computational
thinking – which has only been loosely defined. Broadly speaking, it’s a
set of mental processes that can be used to solve problems. It involves
everything from computing tools and coding to disciplines such as data
“Our goal isn’t to encourage every student to become a computer
scientist,” says Bradford Mott, a senior research scientist at NC State
and co-PI on the project. “We want students to understand how to utilize
computer science principles in any field, regardless of what careers
they choose to pursue.”
And the project isn’t starting from scratch.
The researchers spent years designing and developing a game called
Engage – also with NSF support – which will serve as the jumping off
point for the new initiative.
“We have already tested Engage in North Carolina middle schools, and
have a lot of empirical data demonstrating its effectiveness as an
educational tool,” says James Lester, a Distinguished Professor of
Computer Science at NC State and lead PI on the project. “Our goal now
is to build on Engage, to continue providing an excellent science
education curriculum that deeply integrates computational thinking.”
The team also includes co-PI David Blackburn, who will be collaborating
on the life science elements of Engage that are relevant to middle
But addressing computational thinking and life sciences are not the only
goals. The researchers also want the game to support diversity in STEM
education and, ultimately, in the STEM workforce. That portion of the
project has two components.
the game will be designed to create experiences that are effective at
connecting with young women.
“We want women to understand and engage with the game and its
educational content, in order to help change the existing trend that
sees women turning away from computer science in middle school,” says
Kristy Boyer, an associate professor of computer science at the
University of Florida and co-PI on the project.
Second, the researchers will also be testing the game, and related
curriculum, with 5,000 middle school students in North Carolina and
“These students are from diverse backgrounds, and attend schools in
urban, suburban and rural areas,” Mott says. “We will be working to
ensure that the game and related resources resonate with all students –
not just advantaged ones.”