02 computer games created by middle school girls can they be used to measure understanding of computer science concepts
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02 computer games created by middle school girls can they be used to measure understanding of computer science concepts 02 computer games created by middle school girls can they be used to measure understanding of computer science concepts Document Transcript

  • Computers & Education 58 (2012) 240–249 Contents lists available at ScienceDirect Computers & Education journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/compeduComputer games created by middle school girls: Can they be used to measureunderstanding of computer science concepts?Jill Denner a, *, Linda Werner b, Eloy Ortiz aa ETR Associates, 4 Carbonero Way, Scotts Valley, CA 95066, USAb University of California, Santa Cruz, 1156 High St. MS:SOE3, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USAa r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c tArticle history: Computer game programming has been touted as a promising strategy for engaging children in the kindsReceived 18 February 2011 of thinking that will prepare them to be producers, not just users of technology. But little is known aboutReceived in revised form what they learn when programming a game. In this article, we present a strategy for coding student14 June 2011 games, and summarize the results of an analysis of 108 games created by middle school girls usingAccepted 5 August 2011 Stagecast Creator in an after school class. The findings show that students engaged in moderate levels of complex programming activity, created games with moderate levels of usability, and that the gamesKeywords: were characterized by low levels of code organization and documentation. These results provideConstruction of computer gamesSecondary education evidence that game construction involving both design and programming activities can support theProgramming learning of computer science concepts.After-school Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.1. Introduction Efforts to get precollege students on the pathway to a computing career typically use at least one of two strategies: 1) increase theirinterest and excitement about computing, and 2) introduce students to computational concepts and skills. For over a decade, people haveidentified computer game programming as a way to both hook students into programming activities and teach them fundamental conceptsof computer science. Early studies provided detailed documentation about what students learned (Harel, 1991; Kafai, 1995) but there isa dearth of recent evidence on whether child-friendly program development environments can engage students in ways of thinking thatprepare them for more advanced programming activities (Hayes & Games, 2008). Recent studies confirm that computer game programmingis motivating (Basawapatna, Koh, & Repenning, 2010; Robertson & Howells, 2008; Seif El-Nasr, Yucel, Zupko, Tapia, & Smith, 2007), but fewpresent findings on what students learn. Over the last eight years, we have developed and studied computer game programming classes for middle school girls and boys. Inprevious articles, we described how computer game programming motivated and engaged girls and boys (Denner, Bean, & Martinez, 2009;Denner, Werner, Bean, & Campe, 2005; Werner, Denner, Bliesner, & Rex, 2009) and increased girls’ perceived computer skills and perceivedsupport for computing (Denner, 2007, 2011). We also described the results of a pilot study where we coded games for aspects of IT fluency(Werner et al., 2009). In the current paper, we describe our strategy for coding student games, and the results of the analysis of 108 gamescreated by primarily low income Latina girls with no prior programming experience. Although the games cannot be used to predict whetheror not these students will go on to pursue classes that teach more advanced programming concepts or will maintain a set of programmingskills or concepts, they do provide some important information about the potential of computer game programming for helping students tothink and work in computational ways that prepare them to navigate and contribute to new technologies.1.1. Theoretical framework The theory of constructionism guides much research on how and what children learn when they work on a computer. The educationalstrategy of computer game programming with children is based on constructionist learning, which holds that learning happens when * Corresponding author. Tel.: þ1 831 440 2264; fax: þ1 831 438 3577. E-mail addresses: jilld@etr.org (J. Denner), linda@cs.ucsc.edu (L. Werner), eloyo@etr.org (E. Ortiz).0360-1315/$ – see front matter Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.08.006
  • J. Denner et al. / Computers & Education 58 (2012) 240–249 241people are actively engaged in making a meaningful product. More specifically, constructionist learning is a process of appropriation(making knowledge their own and identifying with it), engagement with others, and the belief that understanding is more important thanmemorizing rules or procedures (Mayer, 2003; Papert, 1991). A constructionist approach to understanding learning combines individual-level cognitive processes with the social and cultural contexts in which learning takes place (Kafai, 2006). From this perspective, it is notsimply the act of making games that makes a constructionist learning environment—it is making games for and with other students.1.2. Children programming games: what do they learn? Novice programming languages were created both to introduce a broader and younger group of students to programming concepts, andto engage a more diverse group of students as producers rather than simply users of computers (Kelleher & Pausch, 2005). Salen (2007)states “knowing how to put together a successful game involves system-based thinking, iterative critical problem solving, art andaesthetics, writing and storytelling, interactive design, game logic and rules, and programming skills” (p. 305). However, greater attentionhas been put into creating game programming environments than has been put into understanding how children learn from using thesesystems. Computer game programming is increasingly being introduced at the high school level, but despite the apparent potential ofprogramming a game to support learning, a recent review shows that there is limited research to support this connection in K-12 grades(Hayes & Games, 2008). One recent project report assessed 95 games for what the authors call “contemporary learning abilities,” such asgame design and functionality (Reynolds, Scialdone, & Caperton, 2010), and a study of middle school students has started to map studentgames to computational thinking (Koh, Basawapatna, Bennett, & Repenning, 2010). However, most existing research focuses on howcomputer game creation increases students’ skills, confidence, and motivation to program computers (Denner, 2007; Basawapatna et al.,2010; Eow, Ali, Mahmud, & Baki, 2010; Seif El-Nasr et al., 2007). There are even fewer studies of whether computer game programmingincreases children’s understanding of computer science concepts. Our review of the literature leads us to hypothesize that computer game programming may be particularly useful for engaging studentsin three key competencies: programming, organizing and documenting code, and designing for usability. In the next section, we describewhat we mean by each of these, and draw on prior research to show why they are important constructs for understanding and promotingchildren’s thinking.1.2.1. Programming To prepare students to contribute to the future of computing, it is important to introduce them to foundational concepts that involvealgorithmic thinking by middle school (Frost, Verno, Burkhart, Hutton, & North, 2009). Algorithmic thinking involves defining a problem,breaking it into smaller yet solvable parts, and identifying the steps for solving the problem. As part of this, students must model the detailsof essential characteristics while suppressing unnecessary details. In the process, finite sequences of instructions are coded to operationalizethe modeled abstractions. Many programming environments designed for children are written in ways to make features like algorithmic thinking accessible to non-programmers, but there is limited research on whether making games with child-friendly environments leads to increased understanding ofprogramming concepts. Studies based on very small samples (usually one class) have found that when programming or ‘modding’ a game,middle and high school students demonstrate knowledge of basic programming concepts, such as variables, loops, and conditionals, as wellas more advanced concepts like parallel and event programming (Peppler & Kafai, 2007; Werner et al., 2009; Yucel, Zupko, & Seif El-Nasr,2006; Carbonero, Szafron, Cutumisu, & Schaeffer, 2010). Studies of very young children using ToonTalk describe how game programmingsystems can engage them in computational abstractions (Kahn, 2004). And a study of over 80 boys and girls using Scratch (and over 500projects) found increases in use of certain programming concepts (loops, variables, Boolean logic, and random numbers) in student projects(not games) over a year’s time (Maloney, Peppler, Kafai, Resnick, & Rusk, 2008). A recent study did find that high school students’ gamesindicate student knowledge of computer science concepts (Carbonero et al., 2010). While the typical ‘designed-for-children’ programmingenvironment does not include all of the features in a modern, general purpose language, there is often a significant overlap which givesstudents a taste of how common programming languages work (Kelleher & Pausch, 2005).1.2.2. Organizing and documenting code Documentation and information organization are critical parts of learning to think in a computational way. For example, a fundamentalactivity of software engineering is to document software so that the developer and others can understand the software in case they need tomodify it for future use, but also to understand the current operation of that software (Denning et al., 1989). If code is never executed, thatcode should be removed from the program to reduce confusion. Kotula (2000) states that “(T)here is a great deal of information about codebehavior that simply cannot be expressed in source code, but requires the power and flexibility of natural language to state. Consequently,source code documentation is an irreplaceable necessity, as well as an important discipline to increase development efficiency and quality.”Good coding standards are also an important part of a game design and construction course, particularly when students are workingcollaboratively on a project (Schaefer & Warren, 2004).1.2.3. Designing for usability Usability is the extent to which a tool can be used intuitively and effectively for the stated goal. In a recent revision of the ComputerScience Teachers Association Model Curriculum for K-12, the learning objectives for human–computer interaction in middle school includeunderstanding and creating usable interfaces (Frost et al., 2009). Usability has particular relevance in computer game design because tomake a usable game, the game programmer must think about how the player will interact with the game (Peppler & Kafai, 2007; Salen,2007), the outcomes of player action, and the goal of the game (how the player can win or lose). Creating interactivity requires problemposing rather than just problem solving; a process that is linked to increased flexibility in thinking, problem solving skills, and conceptualunderstanding (Silver, 1994; Smith & Cypher, 1999). When students design a game for usability, they include features that engage andmotivate the user, clear instructions on how to play the game, and play experience that is free of defects.
  • 242 J. Denner et al. / Computers & Education 58 (2012) 240–2491.3. Current study In summary, we have identified three key competencies that are important for engaging children in computational thinking:programming, documenting and understanding software, and designing for usability. We have also created a coding framework with whichto assess these competencies. In the current study we focus on the appearance of these three key competencies in the computer games thatstudents created in an after-school program. Products like games are imperfect examples of what children learn, and may under or overestimate a student’s understanding of a concept. But they provide information about the learning opportunities related to buildingcomputer science concepts that are afforded by programming a computer game with a partner.2. Methods2.1. Participants The girls in this study were participants in a voluntary after-school program focused on computer game programming. The games wereprogrammed by 59 girls; each student created between one and five games, and each game took between four and six weeks (1–2 h/week)to complete. Most (72%) of the 108 games were programmed by a pair of students working together. When they enrolled in the program,most had just begun the sixth grade (M ¼ 10.44, SD ¼ .77), 72% self-identified as Latina (primarily Mexican descent), and 22% as white. Themajority (72%) spoke a mixture of English and Spanish at home–a small group (6%) spoke only Spanish and 22% spoke only English at home.Most of the students attend a middle school where 46% of the student population are English language learners, 82% of families are lowincome, and 18% of the parents have graduated from college. In 2007, the town’s per capita income was $16,888 (half the US per capitaincome), 75% of the population was Latino (primarily Mexican migrants and immigrants), and half of the residents had earned a high schooldiploma.2.2. Procedure Each student programmed several games over a period of 14 months. The class met twice a week (during the school year) and every dayfor three weeks during the summer in a school computer lab. The class was based on constructionist learning principles, which include aninformal setting where students work on a project for an extended period of time, teachers who encourage peer sharing and helping eachother, frequent student reflection on the process and products that are created, and the creation of a product that is made available ina public space for others to play (Harel & Papert, 1991). The focus of this article is on our second cohort of students, so there were peerhelpers from cohort 1 that provided guidance and support during game programming, in addition to having 1–2 teachers at every class. Onaverage, students spent 1 h programming their games during each class meeting; the rest of the time was spent doing activities that bothtaught and built a network of support to pursue courses and careers in computing. Specific activities included exploring an online scienceeducation community, writing in an online journal, interacting with virtual role models, and going on field trips to colleges and techcompanies. More detail about the program can be found in Denner et al. (2009). The students programmed games with Stagecast Creator software, which uses a programming-by-demonstration approach and visualbefore-after rules that are appealing and accessible to novice programmers (Smith, Cypher, & Tesler, 2000). Creator employs object-orientedprogramming via the use of characters and rule-based execution. Although Creator was widely used in the late 1990s and early 2000s, thereis little research on whether the expected learning benefits occur. The constructs available in the Creator software can be related to those of modern day programming languages. For example, Creatorcharacters correspond to the concepts of objects and inheritance, the “rules” feature corresponds to the concept of methods, and theprogramming of mouse clicks and key input corresponds to the concept of events. Many of the features of Creator allow for algorithmicthinking. For example, students can build complex behaviors out of the sequential execution of simple instructions or ‘rules’ as instructionsare called, which is at the heart of algorithmic thinking: breaking up complex tasks into a finite sequence of smaller parts. Creator scenesgive students a logical way to break up their projects into smaller, convenient pieces. Creator’s rule-based programming approach providesfor conditional execution, another key component of algorithmic thinking and program state can be handled using character and globalvariables. Parallelism, a high level concept that often eludes computer science undergraduates, can be simulated with the ‘do all’ feature ofCreator’s rules. Creator offers built-in characters and backgrounds, as well as a draw feature that allows students to create their owncharacters and backgrounds, which facilitate their ability to model their own imaginary worlds. The ability to name and add comments tocharacters, variables, and rules corresponds to the concept of code documentation. Fig. 1 includes an example of rule-based execution: thescreen shot shows rules that could be used to move one or more of the characters on that screen. Students were first introduced to Creator by doing the built-in tutorials with a partner. Tutorials cover topics such as creation of rules (theCreator name for methods), ordering of rule execution, creating and changing a character’s appearance, animation, sounds, stages (theCreator name for scenes) and doors (mechanisms used to travel between stages), randomness, and variables. In addition, students weretaught about code documentation and organizational concepts, such as the use of rule, variable, and character appearance names, and thedeletion of extraneous rules. The programming constructs that were introduced in the tutorials were also demonstrated by the teacher. Inaddition, students were given handouts that included step-by-step instructions and screen shots for things like replace a character witha directly neighboring one (used to depict one character ‘eating’ another). Students were taught about game design by the instructor whorequired students to incorporate themes for each game genre, and by a Gallery Walk activity where the importance of including clearinstructions and a clear goal was reinforced by having peers playtest and comment on each other’s games. Over the course of the program, students were asked to create five games of four different genres. The first genre was a “maze” game;students were asked to include at least one stage, one challenge on each stage, and multiple appearances for at least one character. Next,students built another maze game and added a content focus on astrobiology. The third game genre was “action;” students were asked toinclude challenges for the player to react to, including being chased by ghosts or shooting targets. The fourth game genre was “trivia,” andthe requirements were to include at least ten stages, each containing a question that the player must answer correctly in order to advance to
  • J. Denner et al. / Computers & Education 58 (2012) 240–249 243 Fig. 1. Rule-based execution in Creator.the next stage. The last genre was “adventure,” where game play involved the development of a story with multiple paths that result indifferent outcomes. There were minimal requirements, they included creating events, multiple linked stages, doors that work, and clearinstructions and a goal. Before starting their game in each genre, the girls played sample games. Some of the sample games have production quality graphics,complete with characters that change appearance when moving left or right, sounds, speech, multiple stages, conditional executionprogram rules based on local and global variables, and descriptive rule, variable, and appearance names to assist in code understanding.Others were much simpler in both their graphical design (e.g., stick figure drawings without multiple appearances) and lack of descriptiverule or character names. The classes were staffed by a middle school teacher, and in some classes there was an additional adult (either research staff or theprogram coordinator) or a slightly older peer to answer questions. Teachers had no prior exposure to Creator or other game programmingenvironments; they usually taught language arts, science, and mathematics.2.3. Data coding and analysis A coding scheme was developed, based on the ISTE National Education Technology Standards for Students (NETS*S) and a schemecreated by Martin, Walter, and Barron (2009) to identify the extent to which students used the features in Creator that are believed tocorrespond with important computer science programming concepts. We believe the coding scheme we use can be adapted for use with anyof the programming environments targeted at younger populations. While the use of this scheme can be used to look for properties of theenvironment needing improvement, we believe it can be used to compare various environments. As shown in Table 1, each game was coded within the three overarching categories (programming, documenting and understandingsoftware, and designing for usability) and 24 subcategories. Each game was coded for the presence, or in some cases, the extent of eachelement within these three categories. Names for characters, global variables, and rules were counted if they had proper names (e.g.,Chocolate the bear) or descriptive names (e.g., bear), as long as they were different from the default names. One hundred and eight games were coded. The games were coded by the third author, and the first author did a 10% check (she coded all24 categories for 11 games). She found ten out of 368 possible items that were coded differently, Cohen’s Kappa ¼ .93. These differenceswere discussed and resolved. Basic frequencies were run on each coding category.3. Results The games varied in their complexity. For example, the average number of scenes was 7 (range 1–36) and the average number of ruleswas 28 (range 0–122). In the following tables, the findings are grouped within each of the three computing concepts, and only concepts thatappeared in at least one game are included. Table 2 displays the percentage of games that included each complex programming element.
  • 244 J. Denner et al. / Computers & Education 58 (2012) 240–249Table 1Game coding categories and definitions. Coding category Definition Programming Parallelism Two or more characters run one rule based on the same starting conditions (e.g., when left arrow is pressed, the main character moves and a ghost throws pumpkins at her). Use of random A character is programmed with multiple rules and the runtime environment (Stagecast) randomly chooses which rule to fire on each clock tick. Variable test An “and-if test” is used on a variable in the game (e.g., more than one condition must be in place for a rule to fire). Global variable use Uses information that affects every stage and every character world wide (e.g., follow character from one stage to the next). Character variable use Information about individual characters (e.g., change in appearance) is used in game (either changed and/or displayed). A new definition is given to a variabledchanged the default initialization of a character. Character variable type Whether the variable was a change of appearance, sound, or something else. Conditional character interaction The rule involves two or more characters that interact and cause something (character death, character win) to occur within the game. The rule must fire to count. Conditions or events Player can make something happen by interacting with the program Door functionality - another form A rule transports a character from stage to stagedsome or all based on whether the user moves a character of conditional execution onto a special door object and the door object is linked to another stage Code organization and documentation Extraneous rules The program code includes rules that are never used Character names Characters are given a name (the default is overridden). Variable names The default “variable 1” is changed to a name. Rule names Rules are given a name. Rule comments used Rules are given comments. Rule grouping Rules are organized by character and/or stagedsometimes or always. Rule boxes Rule boxes are used to organize and order multiple rules for individual characters. Designing for usability Incorporates Themes The given theme is important and incorporated into the game (e.g. astrobiology, adventure, trivia). Character appearance changes Characters change their appearance during game play (e.g., flap wings, change direction). Character appearance type When character appearance changed: whether the appearance changed to a Creator-provided or a student-created picture. Linking of stages Stages of game play are linked thematically and sequentially. Multiple stages of game play There are multiple scenes of game play. Instructions clear There are clear instructions for playing the game and rules for user input. Goal (how to win-lose) clear There are clear instructions on how a player wins and/or loses the game. Functionality There are few or no defects in the programming.Although most games included conditions or events, 18% did not have any functional interaction. The most common elements were doorfunctionality, which allows the player to move from one scene or stage to the next, and the use of conditional character interaction (wheresomething happens in the game as a result of two or more characters interacting). In only 35% of the games with door functionality were allthe doors set correctly. Character variables were used in approximately one third of the games, and 96% of those variables involved changesin character appearance during game play, while 4% used sound. Only 3% of all the games included a character variable that the studentcreated, that involves something other than sound or appearance. Table 3 shows that there was great variation in the use of different types of code organization and documentation. Rules were grouped inmeaningful ways in slightly more than half the games, and more than half of the games included (extraneous) rules that did not fire. Ruleboxes were used in one third of the games, and a closer analysis found that 90% of those who used a rule box used it only for the “do random”command that allows the program to vary the order of rules, meaning a different one will fire on any given turn. In the other 10% of ruleboxes, students used the “do first” rule that tells the program to fire in order. As shown in Table 4, students’ games had modest levels of usability. Most games included multiple stages of play, and more than half hada clear goal (a clear way to win or lose). Among the games with multiple stages, 47% had stages that were linked sequentially andthematically. Functionality was mixeddhalf of the games had few or no defects, and fewer than half included clear instructions on how toplay the game. In Fig. 2 is an example of a game with clear instructions. In the 31 games where the character appearance changed, 61% hadcharacters that changed appearance without any interaction, 32% had characters change appearance as a result of interaction with anothercharacter, and 7% of the games included both types of character appearance change. When character appearance changed, 32% of the gamesinvolved the Creator-provided images, while 68% of the games used student-created images. Table 2 Types of programming in students’ games. Total Conditions or events 82% Door functionality 59% Conditional character interaction 57% Parallelism 36% Character variable use 29% Use of random 32% Global variable use 4% Variable test 1%
  • J. Denner et al. / Computers & Education 58 (2012) 240–249 245 Table 3 Code organization and documentation in students’ games. Total Rule grouping 53% No extraneous rules 41% Rule boxes 31% Character names 31% Rule names 15% Variable names 7% Rule comments 4% To illustrate these findings, we offer two case studies of the most complex games —those with the highest levels of all three categories:programming, code organization and documentation, and designing for usability. The first game “Farm Craze” is an action game where theplayer moves the main character (a farmer) from left to right through three stages (see Fig. 3). The player makes the farmer throw a pitchforkat three types of flying farm animals (pigs, chickens and cows) and the contact turns them into food (bacon, eggs and hamburgersrespectively) and the player earns points. The goal of the game is to complete three game stages while accumulating as many points aspossible. A programming example of conditional character interaction is when the food falls as a result of the pitchfork hitting the animal.This game also demonstrates strong code organization and documentation because it has clearly labeled character and rule namesdthestudents gave meaningful names to all of the characters and to most of the rules. This game is one of the few that includes global variables,which allow the player to accumulate a point each time the pitchfork hits a target. “Welcome to Chef Baker’s Adventure” is an adventure game where the player controls a character called Chef Baker who travelsthroughout a town in search of ingredients (flour, eggs, and sugar) for making cookies (see Fig. 4). Chef Baker talks to three differentcharacters in six different stages and has to answer math questions related to cooking (e.g., If a recipe calls for 2 3/4 cups of flour, and I wantto double the recipe, how much flour do I use? Possible answers are: 4 6/8, 4 6/3 or 5 1/2). Once a question is answered correctly, the playercan access the door to the next stage. The player has to answer three questions correctly to reach the final stage and win the game. In thisgame, there is the use of conditional character interaction to program the characters to talk to each other, there are multiple instances ofchanges in character appearance used to program things such as birds flapping their wings, and rules are grouped to keep track of them. Thisgame also has a strong narrative, and was coded highly for incorporating themes.4. Discussion In this study, we explore whether computer game programming is a useful strategy for engaging middle school students with noprogramming experience in the kinds of thinking and problem solving that will prepare them for computing intensive classes and careers.To this end, we describe a coding framework and present the results from an analysis of 108 games. The findings suggest that computergame programming is a promising approach to engage underrepresented students in the concepts and capabilities that will prepare themfor computer science courses and careers. However, students struggled with concepts that prior research suggests are difficult for youngnovice programmers (Clancy, 2004; Linn, 1985). As a result, the more complex aspects of computing were not automatically engaged in, andrequire additional educator support. Our findings extend those by other researchers working with novice programmers (e.g., Soloway & Spohrer, 1989), however, our workdiffers in an important way. In most other studies, novice programmers were given assignments with program requirements specifications,such as to write a program to read, sum, and print the average of a group of integer values from standard input. When there are specificrequirements, researchers can evaluate the quality of the solution and analyze whether the programming constructs are used correctly orincorrectly. However, we placed very few technical computer science requirements on our students regarding the programs they create. Thus,the students in our study designed their own requirements, usually with a partner, and then programmed a game to fit those requirements. Below we offer a summary of the computer science constructs that students used either as expected or in a novel way, and discuss theseresults in the context of prior research on novice programmers. Overall, we find great variation in the extent to which students incorporatedcomputer science constructs into their game programs. Although having requirements for each game genre appeared to increase the use ofthose constructs, there was still variation in the extent to which they were used. The findings show that students incorporated only modest amounts of complex programming concepts, code organization and docu-mentation, and design for usability into their games. We expected that making games in Creator would engage students in key features ofprogramming such as extensive control structures for sequential, conditional, parallel, and randomized execution; both global and localvariables; abstractions via the use of jars; and event handling for mouse clicks and key input. And indeed, some of the games incorporatedelements that represent these complex programming concepts. However, only one third of the programs used character variables, and only Table 4 Designing for usability. Total Multiple stages of game play 84% Goal 54% Functionality 50% Linking of stages 47% Instructions clear 46% Incorporates themes 40% Character appearance changes 29%
  • 246 J. Denner et al. / Computers & Education 58 (2012) 240–249 Fig. 2. A game with clear instructions.one of these programs contained tests of the values of these variables to control program execution. For example, only 1% of the studentsincluded an “and-if test” used on a variable in the game. Similarly, Clancy (2004) found that young students do not understand the use of‘while’ and ‘if,’ and that novice programmers appear to expect tests to be handled as events that when satisfied would result in a jump to thecode within the ‘while’ (or within the ‘if’ part of the conditional). Even when conditionals were placed in sequential code segments, studentsdid not expect the conditional expression to only be tested when the statement holding the conditional is executed. Maloney et al. (2008)also found certain concepts were used less often in their students’ projects made using the Scratch programming language, such as randomnumbers, variables, and Boolean logic. Most of the uses of character variables were for changing a character’s appearance, an important program feature for creating simu-lations, games, or animated stories. Multiple appearances for at least one game character were required for one of the game genres (themaze genre), and so since students programmed five games and two were mazes, we would expect that at least 40% of the games wouldhave included this complex programming concept. In addition, since this was a requirement for the first game genre, we might have foundthat all subsequent games included this complex programming concept. That was not the case – only about one third of the games includedthe use of character variables for changing a character’s appearance. Additionally, there were few other uses of character or global variablesin our students’ games, which suggests that knowledge of variable use was not transferred from the appearance variable to other uses ofvariables. The students in our study had difficulty with planning the design of their game and programming code that included multiple pieces.Robins, Rountree, and Rountree (2003) found that novices approached a program in a line-by-line way rather than in ‘chunks.’ Similarly, thestudents in our study incorporated limited use of ‘variables’ to handle complex processing such as counters, and also mixed success with theuse of stages, which requires multiple disjoint pieces to all be present in order to work correctly. Most games incorporated multiple stages,which is consistent with the fact that this was an assignment requirement for at least three of every student’s games. However, stages werelinked in less than half of the games and only 59% of the games had at least one functioning door, while 35% had all doors working (a ruletransports a character from stage to stage). These percentages suggest that our students also had difficulty putting the various piecescorrectly together. How do we interpret these frequencies? Were some types of programming used more frequently because they were the easiest to learnin Creator, because they were required by the teacher, or were they used more frequently because they were in the sample games, orbecause they had handouts with screen shots and written instructions? It is likely that ease of learning and clear instructions played a role. Fig. 3. Screen shot of the Farm Craze game.
  • J. Denner et al. / Computers & Education 58 (2012) 240–249 247 Fig. 4. Screen shots of the Chef Baker game.Indeed, door functionality was clearly explained in a handout, and could be programmed with only a few simple steps. Similarly, conditionalcharacter interaction (e.g., one character makes another disappear), required only two steps that were described in a handout. On the otherhand, the sample games and teacher requirements had a minimal effect on what they programmed. For example, the sample adventuregame had some of the most complex programming, but a separate analysis by game genre showed that the students’ adventure games werenot the most complex. It may be that students’ motivation may play a more important role—they put less time into the trivia and adventuregames, which came at the end of a 14-month class. Several concepts seemed difficult for students, despite the availability of instructional materials. For example, there was a handout thatclearly explained how to use variables to require that a character eat a certain amount of objects before it could pass through a door, but fewstudents incorporated this into their games. Similarly, few students incorporated the use of global variables to make the player earn pointswhen an object is hit by another object even though we provided a handout for this too. Our findings are similar to two other studies of students using Creator. In one small study, middle school students using Creator graspedkey concepts in a short period of time, including conditionals, sequencing, and debugging, but they struggled with decomposition (Martin,1999). Similarly, the students in our study struggled with breaking down a desired action into a series of multiple rules, and often had lists ofextraneous rules that did not fire or were duplicates. Seals, Rosson, Carroll, Lewis, and Colson (2002) also describe some of the challengesthat middle school students experience with Creator, which include difficulty distinguishing between the character window and thevariable window, and difficulty understanding the importance of the visual context in regards to creating program rules. The students in ourstudy had similar difficulties. For example, programming character movement in Creator involves positioning characters on the stage tocreate the beginning visual context for the rule, dragging a yellow box, called a ‘spotlight’ to surround this visual context, and then posi-tioning characters on the stage to create the ending visual context for the rule. During program execution, a rule ‘fires’ when the currentsituation on the stage matches the beginning visual context, so all beginning visual contexts must be identified by the programmer. Many ofthe students were successful at making a character move when the background was a single color, but would fail to include other backdropsor characters in the rule’s beginning visual context. The result of this was that their character would stop when it encountered those things.Seals et al. (2002) refer to this characteristic of Creator as “visual brittleness” and say that it can lead to an unmanageable number of rules (p.2). Creator does have a feature that provides for the creation of rules that can fire even without exact matches: the “don’t care” square willallow a ‘before picture’ to match a square no matter what is in it. The use of this feature could have mitigated the ‘visual brittleness’ we foundwithin these students’ programs, but it was not introduced to students in this class. When writing code for a game or any other program, an important indication of the programmer’s understanding of their creation is theextent to which they organize and document their code. Creator offers features of code organization and documentation that include multi-word phrase names for characters, variables, and rules. Additionally, students can add comments to a rule or between rules. Since Creator
  • 248 J. Denner et al. / Computers & Education 58 (2012) 240–249gives newly created rules the default name “untitled,” student-defined rule names are one indication of their understanding of the code’spurpose. However, more than half of the students’ game programs contained extraneous rules, and few took advantage of the system fororganizing and renaming their characters, variables, or rules. This is unfortunate, since most of the games were programmed by pairs ofstudents over multiple weeks, so documentation about what they did would have been particularly important when a student was absent.Reasons for this lack of documentation include a limited understanding of the code’s purpose, and limited role modeling and reinforcementby teachers. Many of the examples given to the students were not documented using multi-word phrase names and additional comments,so the importance of these elements was not reinforced. The moderate levels of usability are similar to other studies of similar age students. For example, Kafai, Ching, and Marshall (1997) foundthat when fifth and sixth grade students programmed their first game, they had limited ability to take the perspective of the player.Similarly, Linn (1985) found that most middle school students had difficulty learning design skills, which include putting together pieces ofcode to perform complex functions, as well as planning and testing the program. Additional training in how to design a game for highusability is needed in order to increase this skill among middle school students. Like others have found, many novice programmers do not persist in the face of challenges. Fluery (1993) found that novices want to avoidcomplexity, and experts want to manage complexity. For example, Fluery (1993) argued that novice programmers who do not type incomments or additional program documentation are trying to avoid additional complexity. The results of this are that the novice is lesslikely to make more than one attempt to debug his or her program. Other studies have found that children have difficulty debugginga program that does not execute as expected (Lin, Yen, Yang, & Chen, 2005). Perkins, Hancock, Hobbs, Martin, and Simmons (1989) callstudents that are unwilling to explore ways to solve a problem “stoppers,” and those that systematically try multiple strategies fordebugging “movers.” They also describe “extreme movers” as those students that try multiple strategies without careful reflection, andthese students typically have no more success than the stoppers. These categories are consistent with our observation data, but a moresystematic video study is required to assign students to different categories and determine the results of their programming efforts. An important limitation to this study is that the games may not have reflected what students were capable ofdonly what they did.Clearly, students’ final products were limited by a number of things, including missing classes due to illness or other obligations, and havingto negotiate decisions with a partner. Because there were few requirements for the games other than those described in Section 2.2 above,we cannot assume that a student is incapable of using correctly or even using a specific Creator feature if the student’s game didn’t includeevidence of that feature. Like others have found (Seif El-Nasr et al., 2007), the girls were very reluctant to revisit and revise their games oncethey were done. As we stated earlier, we placed very few technical computer science requirements on our students regarding the programs they create. Inmost other studies, novice programmers are given assignments with program requirements specifications such as to write a program to read,sum, and print the average of a group of integer values from standard input. When there are specific requirements, researchers can evaluatethe quality of the solution and analyze whether the programming constructs are used correctly or incorrectly. We hoped that students wouldbe motivated to experiment and learn about computer science while exploring the game creation problem domain. In one very specificinstance of a complex computer science concept, multiple appearances for at least one game character were included in the requirementsgiven to the students for their maze game, the first of the five games they created. We saw very little experimentation with the use of multipleappearances outside of the maze games. Perhaps one very important outcome of our study is that without proper guidance, the problemdomain approach may fail to provide sufficient motivation to the students to use and learn a wide range of computer science concepts,especially the complex concepts. Since approximately one third of the games had multiple appearances for at least one game character, thisapproach was a successful mechanism to overcome a narrow student focus on “easy concepts” that can occur on a student-guided domain-based approach to software design and programming. To increase motivation, Kafai, Franke, Ching, and Shih (1998) suggested offeringchallenges or competitions as “conceptual design tools” that teachers can use to encourage students to make more complex games. Additionally, we’ve developed a coding scheme that can be used to identify the extent to which students used the features in Creator thatare believed to correspond with important computer science programming concepts. The coding scheme can be adapted for use with any ofthe programming environments targeted at novice populations, and we believe it can be used to compare various environments as well, inorder to help educators decide which one to use. We are in the process of using a similar scheme with Alice (Werner, Campe, & Denner,under review) and Kodu Game Lab (Fristoe, Denner, MacLaurin, Mateas, & Wardrip-Fruin, 2011) and hope to explore which kinds ofenvironments are most successful in motivating the use and learning of different kinds of computer science concepts.5. Conclusion There are few prior studies that explore the extent to which computer game programming engages middle school students in the useof computer science concepts. The results of this study provide evidence that when students program a computer game, they have theopportunity to engage in the kind of thinking that will prepare them for further study in computing. However, among students with noprior programming experience, more extensive instructional support is needed to engage a greater percentage of students in the morecomplex computer science concepts, to help them create and understand organizational systems, and to identify and remove faults intheir programs. Strategies to increase motivation include offering competitions and more strict requirements for high-level programmingand cleaner code. Future studies that compare students across different programming environments will help us understand the roleplayed by features of the tool. It appears that additional tool features might benefit code organization. These include requiring labeling and naming, and giving longer-lasting feedback on which rules are used (and not used) during a program’s execution. Longer-lasting feedback on duplicate or non-firingrules might also help students increase the correctness and complexity of their programming, as it would assist them in debugging whythings did not work as intended. Students can already observe whether a rule fires because of the presence of rule indicator lights usablewhen play is reduced to single stepping through the program world, however, the current mechanism provides information in real-time.Perhaps if feedback information was stored and available for replay, it could enhance student understanding. The findings alsocontribute to efforts to analyze students’ game design projects and programming environments targeted at novices, which are critical steps
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