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Will making computer science more fun attract college students?

Answers sought to Comp Sci enrollments that continue their swoon

By Todd R. Weiss
June 15, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - With a severe shortage of college-trained IT workers across the U.S., what's it going to take to get more students to pursue computer science studies? Two researchers think they have an answer: computer game-inspired lesson plans.

The researchers were recently awarded $147,000 in National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to create interactive computer game models and sample course curriculums that colleges and universities could use to inspire would-be techies.

"Nationwide, we're facing a real shortage of computer scientists, so if we can make the field more interesting, that is a goal many people are interested in pursuing," said Scott Wallace, an assistant professor of computer science at Washington State University, Vancouver. "The idea of using games in computer science education isn't super new. It's been increasing in the last 10 to 15 years."

Wallace and a colleague, Andrew Nierman, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., got the grant after proposing a two-dimensional game software model, called the Java Instructional Game Engine, and specific, detailed curriculum plans that can be used by smaller schools. The curriculum plans would be designed to use computer games to teach complex subjects such as algorithms and data structures, making the lessons more fun and perhaps easier to understand, Wallace said.

"The idea is that many students are innately interested in games and because of that you can make very interesting course projects that students are willing to spend gobs of time on and that will lead to better education," Wallace said. "The real motivation here ... is that they naturally ... leverage a huge host of skills in computer science."

Work on the two-year project began last month and the materials will be offered to schools as it is completed, he said.

Wallace said he has been incorporating computer games into computer science classes over the last two years at his school -- and the practice is expanding in other schools. Prestigious colleges worldwide have also been adding computer game design classes into their computer science programs as a way to bring in more students, he said.

In Wallace's classes, students create two-dimensional arcade-style games from the ground up, including graphics, networking and even some artificial intelligence features -- all in the name of learning about key computer science concepts. "There's a lot of educational research out there that says if you can engage students about something that is interesting to them, they will learn better," he said.

Andrew Bernat, executive director at the Computing Research Association, a Washington-based group that works to strengthen education in computing and related fields, said national data shows that "without a doubt, enrollments and degrees have dropped off quite dramatically" in the field.

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