Will making computer science more fun attract college students?

Answers sought to Comp Sci enrollments that continue their swoon

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.

Recent results from the group's internal Taulbee Survey on enrollments and employment of Ph.D.s in computer science and computer engineering schools clearly showed a drop-off. After six straight years of declines, the number of new computer science majors in the fall 2006 was half of what it was in fall 2000 -- 15,958 compared to 7,798. That data is only for schools that have Ph.D. programs, Bernat said.

Another study, done by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, showed that interest in computer science and computer engineering fields remains low among incoming freshmen. After peaking in 1999 and 2000, interest in computer science as a major fell 70% between 2000 and 2005, according to the study.

Part of the problem, Bernat said, is that many incoming students read news headlines about the effect of offshoring as IT jobs move to India, China or elsewhere, and they see an IT career as a bad move. "That's certainly true, but it's gotten more press than it deserves." For one, offshoring can happen with jobs in almost any field, except perhaps plumbing and restaurant work, Bernat said.

The work being done under the NSF grant could help bring in more students. "Students don't find computing very interesting and compelling very often," Bernat said. "There are a lot of schools that are trying to find ways to make it more compelling while teaching the subject matter.

"The demand for computing people ... is enormous," he said. "If you believe the U.S. Department of Labor projections, computing is the only area where demand will exceed the supply enormously." Financial companies, retailers and other businesses "are desperate for people. They just can't hire enough people. Demand is there but students run away from it."

Two computer science teachers at universities where the NSF grant research could be useful plan to watch the progress of the work. Jenny Orr, an associate professor of computer science at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., said that getting students interested in classwork is different from a few years ago, when they were more willing to stay focused. "I do think that we need to do more to get their attention. If games do it, it's good."

The key, she said, is that properly used, games involve understanding algorithms, artificial intelligence, graphics, collaboration and networking, and could help inspire students. "We are so worried about computer science enrollments plummeting," she said. "That's why we're doing this."

Robert Bryant a computer science professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., said in an e-mail that his school is also looking to incorporate game-related lessons to attract more students. Gonzaga doesn't have computer game design courses yet.

"I do not think motivation is a major problem for students that do enroll in computer science courses," Bryant wrote. "The larger problem is the lack of high school students being aware of the computer science career fields and the opportunities that exist. It is also clear most high school students are not aware of how most any field now involves a computing component."

There are questions, though, about whether game-inspired lesson plans could really make a difference, he said.

"I've used game-related assignments in various courses over the years and I have not found that every student does better work on them," he said. "Some students are motivated by games, some by other things."

Bryant said he doesn't see games-linked curriculums as a quick fix. "Certainly, it may help some. On the other hand, some may be turned off by them, especially when it comes to factoring the different interest between males and females."

"[In] the end, it is a scientific field that requires good analytical, communication and technical skills," he said. "To gain these skills requires some rigorous studying and hard work. If you are not motivated internally by some goal you find personally appealing, no external environment will make the field fully satisfying to you."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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