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Games the key to girls’ STEM education

Magy Seif El Nasr

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The gender gap in STEM fields is striking. In grades four through seven, when a lot of kids first start to think about what they might want to do as a career, just 14 per­cent of girls express an interest in sci­ence, tech­nology, edu­ca­tion, and math.

A group of industry and aca­d­emic leaders gath­ered at Northeastern’s Seattle campus with what just might be a solu­tion to that problem: video games. (Yes, par­ents and teachers, you’re reading that right.)

Girls GAMES, short for Girls Advancing in Math, Engi­neering, and Sci­ence, is a new col­lab­o­ra­tion between uni­ver­sity part­ners and gaming com­pa­nies in Seattle aimed at pro­moting STEM careers for women through the devel­op­ment of edu­ca­tional games. Though the main event is being held in Seattle, a two-​​hour event is sched­uled for 3 p.m. today in 250 West Vil­lage F.

“We know games can engage kids to learn, so let’s use games for real learning, and let’s use games to advance girls’ learning, interest, and aspi­ra­tions in STEM,” said Tayloe Wash­burn, dean and CEO of Northeastern’s grad­uate campus in Seattle.

The idea makes sense: Nearly 200 mil­lion Amer­i­cans reg­u­larly play video games, with kids playing them for an average of more than two hours a day. And research shows games can be a valu­able learning tool, encour­aging chil­dren to think crit­i­cally and solve problems.

“We’ve tried every­thing from class­room pro­grams to after-​​school ini­tia­tives, yet the data sug­gests we still have a long ways to go,” Wash­burn said. “A tool that has not yet been used, with girls in par­tic­ular, is games.”

Wash­burn is heading up a team that rep­re­sents the fore­front of both gaming and STEM edu­ca­tion: asso­ciate pro­fessor Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, director of Northeastern’s Game Design Pro­gram whose research focuses on designing edu­ca­tional games; Karen Anderson, CEO of the National Girls Col­lab­o­ra­tive Project; Dana Riley-​​Black, director of the Center for Inquiry Sci­ence; and Shep­herd Siegel, director of school engage­ment for Project Lead the Way. The Insti­tute for Sys­tems Biology, the National Girls Col­lab­o­ra­tive Project, and North­eastern University—Seattle are co-​​sponsoring the initiative.

Working with Seattle-​​area uni­ver­si­ties and some of the 350 gaming com­pa­nies based in and around Seattle, Wash­burn believes the ini­tia­tive can make a dif­fer­ence in guiding tal­ented stu­dents into fields crit­ical to our nation’s economy but which are his­tor­i­cally male-​​dominated.

The goal, though, isn’t to develop a game that’s purely edu­ca­tional. Those, Wash­burn said, are so noto­ri­ously dull that the gaming industry has all but aban­doned them.

“A really com­pelling fun game is the key, so that is our goal,” Wash­burn said.

This article was originally posted by news@Northeastern.