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Researcher: 

Andrea Tapia, Assistant Professor, College of Information Sciences & Technology; Affiliate Assistant Professor, Department of Labor Studies and Industrial Relations, Pennsylvania State University – Gaming for Girls project (please see http://atapia.ist.psu.edu/?page_id=12 for other research projects)

Introduction

The percentage of young women choosing educational paths leading to science and technology-based employment has been dropping for several years (ITAA, 2004, 2005). In our view, the core cause for this phenomenon is a lack of interest and social support on the part of the girls and their families and not a lack of ability. The specific aim of this paper is to evaluate the utility of building virtual environments in influencing girls’ interest in computer-related educational paths and careers. This is evaluated through an intervention, or action-research, in the form of a class named “Gaming for Girls.” This class was offered to middle and high school girls three times over the years 2005-2006. We believe that this intervention is one mechanism to increase middle and high school girls’ exposure to computers, programming and IT employment, in order to demystify the technology and IT profession. In so doing, it challenges the prevailing stereotype of IT professionals in a way that would enable girls to ‘see themselves’ in this career as well. Thus, we define our research questions as follows: (1) Did the use of activities around building virtual environments and experiences motivate and capture the interest and attention of middle and high school female students? (2) Did students gain significant exposure to diverse images of IT education and employment? (3) Did students gain computer skills and increased information literacy? The data presented in this work is drawn from the students and parents involved in these classes.
Currently, we do not understand why women students do not select IT as a career choice. The vast majority of students enrolled in educational programs in information technology and employees in the information technology workforce are male (Camp, 1997; Freeman & Aspray, 1999; U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Despite numerous efforts to recruit and retain women students into both educational programs in IT and the IT workforce, these efforts have largely proved unsuccessful. In addition, despite the current availability of high-paying and often prestigious positions in IT, a common observation finds that women remain acutely underrepresented at the higher-paying professional and managerial levels (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2001; Engineering, 2001-2002; Geewax, 2000; ITAA, 2003; National Science Foundation, 2000; Spender, 1997). Women now represent a significant proportion of the labor force, yet they are underrepresented in the IT workforce. Women accounted for 46.5% of the American labor force (ITAA, 2005) in 2005 and only 32.4% of the IT workforce (ITAA, 2005). ITAA (2003) reported that the percentage of women in the overall IT workforce actually dropped from 41% to 34.9% in 2003.

This under representation of women in the IT workforce can be attributed to a “pipeline” issue. Women earn significantly fewer undergraduate degrees in computer science and engineering than their representation in the U.S. population. When examining the participation of women in IT, it is significant to observe that in the US there generally is a decrease in the participation of women in the field of computer and information science in a progression up the ranks of education (Camp, 1997; Freeman & Aspray, 1999; U.S. Department of Education, 2002). In turn, this collegiate trend may be traced back to the middle and high school experience for women students. Women students continue to track out of math and science classes, without which, they do not have the foundation on which to build IT careers. American cultural expectations and influences often convey the message that women are unsuitable for the IT world (Trauth, 2002; von Hellens, Nielsen, & Trauth, 2001; Ray, 2003). By the time young women reach college, there is evidence of the effects of these social norms and expectations. For example, in years prior to college, research studies have revealed that some women exhibit lower levels of self-efficacy in computing, smaller amounts of informal and voluntary computer exploration in computer camps and clubs, and have misconceptions of IT workers and IT work (e.g. Beise, 2004; Craig & Stein, 2000; J. Margolis & Fisher, 1997, 2002; Nielsen, von Hellens, & Wong, 2000; Symonds, 2000; Teague, 1997; von Hellens et al., 1999; Woodfield, 2000).

In the middle and high school setting, young women students are faced with immense forces of cultural reproduction in which the values, norms, attitudes, and beliefs of their predecessors are instilled in the current generation (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1973; Giddens, 1997). At times, these cultural agents of socialization may act as gatekeepers for items of social value such as degrees, jobs, social networks, and forms of social capital.

The Class and Intervention

We have developed a set of weekend courses for middle and high school girls, called Gaming for Girls. In the Gaming for Girls courses, girls were taught technology skills, including programming, design, and visual editing through developing video games (Seif El-Nasr & Smith, 2006; Yucel, Zupko, & Seif El-Nasr, 2006). Since this work is primarily an intervention, it can be seen as a form of action research in which we have both research goals and intervention goals. Action research seeks to change something about the environment being studied and involves a cyclical process in which research, action and evaluation are interlinked. The action research process is often conceived as a spiral in which both the researchers and the subjects engage in self-reflective planning, acting, observing, reflecting, and re-planning (McNiff, 1988, 1993; Somekh and Thaler, 1997, Winter, 1987, 1989, 1998). Our interventional goals for this project are to stem the tide of female attrition from computer-related disciplines, to increase middle and high school girls’ exposure to technology and the IT profession, and to challenge the prevailing stereotype of IT professionals in a way that will enable girls to ‘see themselves’ in this career as well. As stated by Carson (2004) with the Career Resources Network Project, when intending to influence young women to consider careers in science and technology, “a program designed for middle school students should allow the students to explore multiple careers and be deliberately structured to widen their concepts of future possibilities. Counselors should expect the students to arrive with sex-role stereotypes, especially with respect to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and vocational careers, and need to explicitly show students how these stereotypes are limiting.” Gender Diversities and technology Institute, http://www2.edc.org/gdi/publications_SR/CareerLitReviewSumm.pdf

At the time of publication of this work, this class has been offered three times: Fall 2005, Spring 2006, and Summer 2006. Each Fall/Spring class spanned five weeks in four-hour weekend lab sessions (Summer students covered the same materials in a highly intensive week-long camp session). The class is currently being offered (Fall 2006) and is expected to continue to be offered in the future.

During these weekly sessions, students learned how to use specific game building technologies, including Game Maker, RPG Maker XP, and Warcraft III, to build games and interactive stories. Each student was expected to complete a working game by the end of the fifth week. Students engaged in a show-and-tell activity with parents, instructors and school personnel during the last session. Class size ranged from 20-27 students. Survey data was collected during classes to tackle the research questions discussed previously.

Resources: 

Tapia, A., Seif El-Nasr, M., Yucel, I., Zupko, J., and Maldonado, E., “Building Virtual Spaces: Games as Gatekeepers for the IT Workforce,” Submitted to the International Federation of Information Professionals (IFIP) Working Group 8.2/9.5 meetings held in Portland, Oregon. July 2007.

Tapia, A., Seif El-Nasr, M., Yucel, I., Zupko, J., and Smith, B., “Middle-to-high school Girls as Game Designers – What are the learning implications?” Submitted to 2nd Annual Microsoft Academic Days Conference on Game Development, February 22 - 25, 2007.