Does Involving Girls as Designers Result in Girl-Friendly Science Education Software? Comparing processes and outcomes of same-sex 5 th and 8 th grade girl and boy design teams

PIs: Carrie Heeter, Rhonda Egidio, Punya Mishra
Team: Randy Russell, Brian Winn, Norm Lownds, Leigh Graves Wolf, Kaitlan Chu, Laura Portwood-Stacer
Michigan State University

This project is partially funded by a research grant from the National Science Foundation.

The complete proposal is available online. We are partway through the project, as of Summer 2004. Here are preliminary publications:

Do Girls Prefer Games Designed by Girls?
Carrie Heeter, Kaitlan Chunhui Chu, Rhonda Egidio, Punya Mishra, Leigh Graves-Wolf, November, 2004

Carrie Heeter, Kaitlan C. Chu, Punya Mishra, Rhonda Egidio, August, 2004

Comparing 14 Plus 2 Forms of Fun In Commercial Versus Educational Space Exploration Digital Games Carrie Heeter, Kaitlan (Chunhui) Chu, Apar Maniar, Brian Winn, Punya Mishra, Rhonda Egidio, and Laura Portwood-Stacer, International Digital Games Research conference, 4-6 November 2003, The Netherlands.

Gender Reactions to Games for Learning Among Fifth and Eight Graders, M.A. Thesis, Kailan Chunhui Chu, May, 2004

Girls and Games Literature Review, last updated May 2004

Girls and Games References, last updated May 2004

OBJECTIVES: Virtual environments are increasingly being called upon to advance science learning. With possibilities for interactive multimedia displays and learner customization, these environments hold great promise. But are these environments friendly to girls? Computer games, designed by young men for boys and young men, epitomize technology's exclusion of girls, their interests, and values. Less obvious but more devastating, this technological estrangement exacerbates girls' lack of interest and self confidence not just in computers but in science. Technology itself and even the design of technology-enhanced science experiences may disadvantage girls, turning them away from SMET instead of engaging them. Experts urge more women and girls to become involved in software and hardware design, to begin to transform computer culture. The “Involving Girls as Designers” (IGD) project will look at what can happen when girls design their own science learning game experiences. Do girls and boys approach the design process differently? If so, what are the characteristics of a girl-friendly design process? Do all-girl design teams create products that are more appealing to other girls than products designed by all boy teams? Are gender differences more strongly polarized by the end of middle school, or are they equally evident even in fifth grade?

INTELLECTUAL MERIT: IGD will test the assertion that involving girls as designers can impact design process and product and describe gender and age differences. IGD will contribute concrete understanding of girls' attitudes toward games as well as other diverse forms of technology-enhanced science learning.

Preliminary Report

Space Pioneer Game Design Camp. 40 boys and girls (5th and 8th graders) came together for two weeks to work in same gender, same grade 5 person teams (with a teacher facilitator) to learn about space exploration by playing digital games, watching video clips, and participating in diverse technology-mediated space learning activities. They participated in 6 guided brainstorms to invent a space related educational game which might motivate kids like themselves to want to become space scientists.

Data Collection and Research Questions. Two same-sex researcher observers for each of the 8 teams took notes throughout the camp. Observations have been painstakingly coded and the rich data is being analyzed to address many design process research questions. Surveys we administered and focus group discussions held after each learning activity. Gender and grade reactions to technology-mediated learning experiences are being compared. Based on the brainstorms, a producer-writer, space scientist, and media artists are developing game promos of hypothetical space learning games being as true to the kids' original visions as possible. Design outcomes (the game promos) are being analyzed, looking at gender and age differences. Reactions to the 8 promos be gathered from hundreds of middle school children, looking to see what impact the (undisclosed) gender and grade of the design team has on liking of the game by boys and girls.

Content Analysis -- The same sex, same grade teams generated 8 game concepts were adapted into short, approximately 3 minute digital video promos for hypothetical space learning games. These promos are being analyzed for gender differences.

  • Dr. Evil Stinky and the Poison Cake (5g)
  • The Great Probe Mission (5g)
  • Virus Fighters: The Defeat of Juppa (5b)
  • Never Safe in Space (5b)
  • Virtual Reality Mars Resort (8g)
  • Desdemona IX (8g)
  • The Universal Challenge (8b)
  • Mars Tycoon: The Race to Save Humanity (8b)

Survey Research - - Reactions to the Promos. In spring 2004 145 middle school children were shown the 8 game promos to look at how boys and girls react to games envisioned by child teams of their same gender and opposite sex child teams. A larger sample of children will be surveyed in fall 2004.

Reactions to Technology-Mediated Learning Experiences (TLME) highlights

Girls are not at all averse to TLMEs. 14 the 19 TMLEs at camp were rated more fun by girls than by boys, seven of them significantly so. The five TLMEs boys liked better were not significantly different by gender. We say that games disadvantage females. This may refer more to commercial than academic games. Girls really had fun playing the academic space games – much more than boys did. The girls three most favorite games were rated significantly less fun by boys.

Design Process highlights

At the end of the camp we had 160 documents of field notes (10 days of camp, for 8 design teams, each with 2 observers). The coding was both top-down (i.e. based on our research questions and topics that were interested in finding out) and well as bottom up (i.e. based on themes and ideas that emerged from the actual transcripts). This semester students in a College of Education doctoral seminar are analyzing this data, working closely with Dr. Mishra to explore a series of important questions.

Children and technology

  • Children's relationship with technology ( Leigh Graves Wolf )
  • The influence of media on children's collaborative design task, the role of inter-textuality (Yi Chen)

Understanding the process of design: Sociology

  • The nature of cooperation (Nicholas Sheltron)
  • The nature of leadership (Peter Osborne)
  • Considering the “other” in the design task (Danah Henriksen)
Learning/teaching in Space Camp
  • What does designing educational games tell us about students' implicit theories of learning (Steven Forbes Tuckey)
  • The role of the teacher/facilitator in a collaborative design task (Michael Phillips)

Evolution of ideas

  • The evolution of ideas in adolescent's design work, quality and context (Chun Lai)
  • The ecology of ideas in the design process, its nature and representation (Kym Buchanan)

Early Content Analysis Findings -- Design Outcome Gender Difference Highlights

GOALS. All of the boy games envision fighting aliens. They describe distinct opponents to beat and/or kill. The fifth grade girl games do have an evil force, but the girls don't seek to destroy or beat that entity, merely to solve the problem the entity caused. Neither 8th grade girl group mentions opponents. Unlike boys, girls focus on playing, not winning.

DANGEROUS FUN, SILLY FUN. Girls face life threatening circumstances but the obstacles most girl teams developed have a lighthearted element of silliness. The evil alien is named Dr. Evil Stinky, or the Mars resort runs out of nails for construction. Boys giggle about killing aliens -- but they also usually risk death themselves. In three of four boy games players die often, as part of play.

SOCIAL COMPLEXITY. It was striking that all four girl teams wanted a single player game. They included social interactions (negotiations with aliens for the 5th graders and socially complex interactions between you (the leader) and your crew for 8 th graders) but all "others" in the game are computer-generated. The boy teams all included the option of single or multiplayer. There was little game play related to negotiation or social interaction, but the player was always assumed to be part of a larger social-institutional mission and part of a small team.

ALIENS. Fifth grade girl game humans live on earth but travel freely in space and aliens live on other planets and moons. The 8th grade girl game humans are beginning to colonize space -- Mars in one case and searching for new habitable worlds in the other. Two boy games envision human and alien civilizations spread across the solar system. Two boy games take place less far into the future, focusing on early search for life or colonizing Mars.


Carrie Heeter, Ph.D.
Comm Tech Lab Director
Professor of Digital Media Arts and Technology
Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media
Michigan State University in San Francisco
2467 Funston Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94116

Rhonda Egidio, Ph.D.
Professor of Education
Director REACH
Director VITAL
237 Erickson Hall
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI. 48824-1034

Punya Mishra, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Technology, Learning, and Culture
509a Erickson Hall
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI. 48824-1034

Copyright Michigan State University Comm Tech Lab, 2004