Connecting Underrepresented Youth to STEM through Culturally Relevant Game Design

Jim Diamond has extensive experience in formative research, instructional design, and the effective use of digital media and games to enhance K–12 education and promote social justice. He leads an evaluation of iDesign, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) project that engages youth in designing interactive, culturally and social relevant computer games to build their technological fluency and increase their interest in STEM learning and careers. On April 17, Jim and iDesign project leaders Roberto Joseph and Eustace George Thompson of Hofstra University discussed iDesign in a session, “Creating A Culturally Relevant Game Design Curriculum: Emerging Design Principles,” at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Chicago. In this post, Jim talks about iDesign’s goals and shares some of the findings that he and his colleagues presented at AERA.

Men and women of color and individuals from high-poverty communities are chronically underrepresented in STEM-related professions. Research on culturally relevant pedagogy and funds of knowledge suggests that one reason for this ongoing challenge to social justice is that members of these populations often do not see themselves as “STEM people.” That is, people from non-dominant populations have fewer opportunities to connect topics and interests that have personal meaning for them to the STEM practices and activities they encounter in formal settings such as school. Further, instructional practices typically do not allow learners to draw from their practical (or cultural) knowledge of science and math. The lack of experiences that could help young people see the relevance of STEM activities to their interests and aspirations contributes to alienation and, potentially, a decreased likelihood of engaging with and persisting in STEM-related endeavors.

Led by PI Roberto Joseph of Hofstra, the iDesign team is tackling this challenge by developing and piloting a digital game design curriculum that helps young people build computational thinking skills by designing and developing games about issues that are important to them. The goal is to create a 30-week, after-school clubhouse curriculum that middle and high school teachers from a range of disciplines can use to introduce youth to game design and computer programming principles and practices. To help participating youth use STEM-related practices (such as coding with Scratch) to express themselves about topics that are personally meaningful, the curriculum includes a “research” phase, during which youth investigate a topic and think about how to help others experience the topic in the context of game play.

In our AERA session, we will discuss some formative evaluation findings related to curriculum design that are helping the project team refine iDesign. An example of one of our findings follows.

As originally conceived, the iDesign curriculum sequenced youth activities in chronological order (in roughly 10-week segments) under three broad topics: game play and design; research; and game development using computer programming. The sequence is pictured below.

During our evaluation interviews, however, several of the teachers who are participating in iDesign suggested that the sequence was disjointed. The teachers noted that they and their students were having a tough time making connections among the three topics. One teacher said,

Transitioning is difficult. I’m going through it now, I don’t want them to walk away having picked a topic, having done some research on it, and then just saying what the challenges are…I need more, a better framework for getting them to that research and being able to identify what’s really important for them.

The quote is representative of others’ experiences: young people do not expect to engage in research—a very school-like activity—in an after-school setting.  When they do, they need ongoing opportunities to learn and practice how to express what they are researching in the context of a game. In addition, just as film uses its own grammar of shots and writing involves rhetorical moves, so too do digital games require design and coding knowledge. Young people need time to practice design and coding so they can successfully engage players in exploring their ideas. To address these challenges, we have proposed that the curriculum components should be conceived of as a series of concentric circles, as pictured below, with “culturally relevant pedagogy” encompassing all other activities, thus “gluing” them together.

Envisioning the curriculum this way allows for concurrent activities in the three component areas, rather than for separate, serial activities that do not allow learners ongoing opportunities to engage in the challenging—but potentially rewarding, given the game-based outcomes—process of investigating a topic deeply and thinking about how to translate and program some piece of it into a game design. How would the two sequences play out differently in an after-school program?

Original Sequence: Ms. Wilson introduces Carlos and his peers to game design, they choose topics, they learn to code, and they create games.  

Proposed Sequence: Ms. Wilson gains strategies to engage Carlos and his peers in deep reflection on and investigation of issues that are important to them and their communities. Guided by the issues on which they choose to focus, Carlos and his peers move on to practice how to use game design principles and computer programming skills to communicate what they want others to learn about their issues and to develop their games. 

If successful, we hypothesize that the proposed sequence will make it easier for young people to see and experience the relationship between STEM-related skills, practices, and topics that matter to them.