Project Summary

The purpose of this three-year research project is to build a successful software environment for realtime, applied programming for underrepresented students' early literacy (RAPUNSEL) in order to address the critical shortage of women in Computer Science (CS) careers and degree programs. Fewer girls than boys enroll in CS related programs, feel self-confident with computers, and use computers outside the classroom. Much research ties this shortage to problems at the middle school age, and both women and girls report a lack of confidence in their computer skills. The goal is to develop an engaging system with which to teach computer programming to middle school girls. We believe that the way to build confidence in computer science is to teach girls real, applicable skills gradually through an engaging game environment. The system is designed in units to become a scalable, approachable simulation game that appeals to girls' sense of communication, curiosity, and play while boosting confidence and developing programming expertise.

Specifically, this project aims to study three areas related to gender and CS. First, how do the design of the programming software environment and the role of the peer group within such an environment affects girls' motivation and engagement to learn programming? Second, what is the depth to which middle school girls are able to learn programming concepts such as procedural thinking? Third, can we increase girls’ overall confidence and self-efficacy levels in a software environment? RAPUNSEL addresses these issues through the design of a JAVA-based networked play environment in which girls can alter and create original characters, scenes, and scripts to build collaborative narratives online. Using four web-based modules, girls will learn programming progressively through manipulating the objects in the modules and receiving immediate feedback. RAPUNSEL allows girls to share their creations and gradually gain access to programming through guided hint systems in the form of character agents. No previous initiatives have focused specifically on the tiered use of a commonly used programming language for middle school girls within an online software environment, and no other project has empowered girls to create their own programmatic objects for others to use.

Working in research and development “minicycles,” we will research and build technical modules such as an intelligent script editor, content such as behaviors and objects, the graphical user interface (GUI), and monitoring components to create the client side of a software environment which encourages girls to learn JAVA. We will begin with existing research focusing on girls and technology and children learning programming, and will design three client side core instructional modules during the course of the research. In each phase of the research, we will build these prototypes to fit into a larger framework for what we call “unfoldable environments” which motivate girls to unwrap the characters and worlds presented to them, manipulate them, and create new objects and environments. We will work with small groups of Oregon and New York girls as users, testers, informants, and design partners. Large-scale assessment will occur in the Eugene Oregon 4J school district.

The research team includes experienced, award-winning scientists, artists, designers, and educators with a unique blend of academic and industry experience. PIs Ken Perlin and Mary Flanagan have years of experience designing influential software. PI Andrea Hollingshead, a social psychologist who studies the socio-cognitive and motivational processes involved in effective collaborations, will lead assessment with consultant Gerald Tindal, University of Oregon. Industry-related consultants on the project include Will Wright, the founder of Maxis Entertainment and creator of The Sims games, and Lindsay Gupton, Executive Studio Director of Know Wonder, maker of the Harry Potter, American Girl, and Magic Schoolbus games. Educators serving as consultants are middle school teachers in Eugene, Oregon as well as the 4J school district in Eugene.

The research results will be disseminated in the form of peer-reviewed publications and conference talks as well as a set of online resources. When completed, RAPUNSEL will be distributed online as a user-friendly environment and will also be available as open source for other researchers to use.

Project Narrative

There is a critical shortage of women in Computer Science (CS) careers and degree programs. Margolis and Fisher, in their landmark study of gender and CS, note that the male dominance in information technology can be linked to the social, cultural, and educational influences and patterns formed in childhood [2, 38]. Research shows that although girls are as talented as boys in math and science, and although most girls are excited about science in childhood, these same girls begin to lose interest in math and science in middle school [12, 14]. By the eighth grade, twice as many boys as girls show an interest in science, engineering, and mathematics careers [15]. While opportunities for CS-related careers are broadening, and programming skills are required in many diverse fields, fewer and fewer girls are attracted to CS related activities. New approaches and resources are needed to engage girls in computer programming activities.

The purpose of this research project is to design a successful web-based software environment for realtime, applied programming for underrepresented students' early literacy (RAPUNSEL). The goal is to develop an engaging way to teach computer programming to middle school girls in a scalable, approachable manner that appeals to girls' sense of communication, curiosity, and play. Specifically, this project aims to study how the design of a programming software environment affects girls' motivations to program, their ability to learn programming concepts, and the extent to which girls' overall confidence and self-efficacy levels are affected by the RAPUNSEL environment.

We will construct RAPUNSEL to be a JAVA-based online learning tool which teaches procedural thinking and, ultimately, computer programming through an attractive simulation game. The game environment is designed to be a modular, tiered, creative tool to instigate middle school girls' interest in programming. RAPUNSEL will encourage girls to alter and create original characters, scenes, and scripts to build programming-based narratives. When complete, RAPUNSEL will provide an inventive and participatory motivational space for multiple users. The software program, created through instructional modules that fit into a larger framework, is the basis of what we call an “unfoldable environment.” By engaging middle school girls within the unfoldable environment, we will motivate them to unwrap the characters and worlds presented to them, manipulate them according to their own preferences, and create new objects and environments with the software. No previous initiatives have focused specifically on teaching a commonly used programming language to middle school girls from within an online software environment, and no other project has thus far empowered girls to create and save their own language-based creations for others to use and share.

RAPUNSEL will enable multiple simultaneous participants to:

·  Access an intuitive framework configured for tiered learning of computer programming

·  Interact with digital characters and represent themselves through the creation of new digital artifacts

·  Program new, sharable objects in Java, save material to the web, and ultimately add their work to help build the environment

·  Solve complex problems and engage in software design, algorithmic, and procedural thinking through computer programming

·  Express themselves using technology and create new game goals and frameworks for play through the objects they create

·  Communicate with other participants and enact collaborative activities

·  Develop self-esteem and self-efficacy while working with technology

The goal of RAPUNSEL is to empower middle school girls as designers, programmers, and inventors, enabling them to learn about the world through their own experimentation and exploration. To do this, the design of RAPUNSEL relies on the development of new technologies. In particular, we must build a progressive educational environment (referred to as “scaffolding” design in Guzdial [26]) which eases girls into increasingly complex Java programming. This environment will allow us to study the learning potential of computer science programming tools, the impact of learning procedural thinking on the group, and girls' interest and confidence levels in various aspects of the environment through implementation [67]. This research also will study the practicalities of implementing RAPUNSEL in a classroom or in online-only settings.

During the course of our research, we will build, test, rework, and combine technical modules such as an active script editor, content such as behaviors, objects, and narratives, the graphical user interface (GUI), and monitoring components to create the client side of the software environment. We will design, evaluate and combine the final prototypes representing several foundational aspects of the research into a cohesive storytelling environment. The team will begin with existing research focusing on girls, middle school learners, and programming (specifically the significant work of Kafai, Guzdial, Resnick, Bruckman, Papert, Laurel, and the AAUW studies). In each phase of the research, we will design tools to address girls’ needs in the unfoldable environment framework.


At the same time the demand for participants in CS is increasing, fewer girls than boys enroll in CS classes, feel self-confident with computers, and use computers outside the classroom-- less than 33% of participants in computer courses and related programs are girls [1,15]. Research shows that females experience a reduction in self-esteem during adolescence, negatively affecting their achievements and narrowing their aspirations [57, 66]. Middle school girls statistically drop out of math and science classes or do not perform well, and adolescence is often the final time girls consider the diverse array of career opportunities in technical areas, especially CS [62]. The most significant reasons cited in research for this lack of interest are that girls often underestimate their own abilities and are not engaged by the content of such programs [5, 6, 28]. Women and girls consistently report a lack of confidence in their computer skills [11, 39, 24, 29,44, 67]. Although women constitute roughly half of the US population, they are significantly underrepresented in CS degree programs and professions [48]. Nearly 75% of future jobs will require computer use, and yet fewer than 33% of participants in computer courses and related activities are girls; by 2010, the largest industries and fastest growing job opportunities will be computer related, specifically, in CS and engineering fields [64]. The current science, engineering and technology workforce is only 19% female [15].

These figures point to an emergency situation in computer literacy for girls. Girls need to be reached before adolescence to keep them interested in science and math and to foster their achievement in these curricular areas. Specifically, girls need to be encouraged not only to be computer users, but also become those at the forefront of creating new computer technologies. Bruckman et. al. found that gender does not affect programming ability or performance, but while girls spend significantly more time than boys communicating with others in computer supported learning environments, boys are more likely than girls to have prior programming experience, and spend more time programming on average [8]. This research recommends that in order to increase gender equity in technical computer skills, developers should focus on strategies for fostering interest among girls. Yet no commercial software exists to encourage middle school girls to learn software design and computer programming, and the types of software directed at girls has neither increased nor diversified since the seminal work of Laurel [37].

Computer games that currently attract girls are thus important to our research. Games for girls have been studied through commissions sponsored by groups such as the AAUW. A recent review of popular mathematics programs targeted at K – 6th grade showed that only 12 % of the characters were female, and those played passive roles such as “princess” [3]. Studies of gender and play have shown that girls are more likely than boys to engage in parallel and constructive play as well as peer conversations [41]. Game environments such as The SIMS and Neopets engage players in interesting variations of constructive play – players create virtual households or create and care for virtual pets. However, players do not learn extensive technical skills playing in such commercial game environments. Criteria for truly equitable software must go beyond representation and game scenarios and allow models which empower students to be software designers and have technical and creative control over their own environments.

The goal is that by being able to access programming processes and compelling environments early, middle school girls will be able to make their own creations, construct significant objects and environments which reflect the way girls think, represent their values and opinions, and lead to the formation of new knowledge. In addition, such experience will enable them to participate in the currently male-dominated software industry as a generation of girls becomes technological creators [3]. If we can broaden the participation of all middle school girls with techniques and possibilities that they can relate to their actual, everyday lives and can expand upon in a virtual environment, this will rearrange the dynamics in the creative terrain of computational media. Indeed, the eventual aim of gender equity research should emphasize the diverse range of interests and preferences for all students, so that through good design, creative environments, and customization, we are able to create experiences which will ultimately support a broad spectrum of learners.

Innovative Features of the Work

Several computer programming initiatives for middle school children have been funded by NSF. The NSF-funded MUVEES, a collaboration between George Mason U., Harvard U., the Smithsonian, and teachers from Arlington, VA, produced a collaborative environment for middle school science education [42]. This research team's use of online VR worlds to motivate students to explore curricular areas within a space is important, but it does not involve computer programming or construction of new knowledge or artifacts. Mary Flanagan, a PI on this proposal, has an ongoing project, The Adventures of Josie True, which is a software program to encourage girls in 5th grade math and science. This project, funded in 1999 by NSF, focuses on intricate narrative, compelling characters, and historical role models to provide a motivational context for girls’ exploration of 5th grade curricular areas ( Initial research has shown that girls are more likely to excel in math challenges in a game environment due to the instant feedback of the system and a compelling narrative scenario [23]. The not-for-profit team is currently producing Episode 2 set in ancient Egypt. Focus groups conducted in 2002-3 show that girls wish to create their own game scenarios, behaviors, and characters to build upon existing characters and frameworks provided in the software, and thus Flanagan has taken this feedback into the design of RAPUNSEL. Several other initiatives focusing on mentoring girls in math and science have also been funded by NSF, and very important new studies, such as the Ohio University study begun in 2001 by Bernt et. al., are generating large scale data pools about interests in math and science for middle school girls.