Using games to teach computer science remotely, S10E3

Close up of a game displayed on a computer screen.


Can middle schoolers learn computer science concepts using tabletop games? How about during a pandemic, when classroom interaction takes place remotely? Researchers in computer science and education are working closely with teachers to develop an innovative curriculum designed to broaden participation in computer science classes.

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Season 10
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[MUSIC: “Ain’t We Got Fun in the College of Engineering,” used with our own permission.]

ROBERTSON: Since last March, most of us have had to figure out a different way of doing our jobs, our workouts, our socializing. It’s exhausting. Virtually, everything has changed. 

But one cool thing is that we’ve all become pretty creative problem solvers. I’m recording this from a blanket fort in my house, and I did all the interviews for this podcast over Zoom. But I know that doesn’t compare to what educators have faced when classes switched to remote teaching.

JENNIFER PARHAM-MOCELLO: Can we do this? That was my initial reaction. Can this be done? Can we make it engaging and fun for three hours online with middle school kids? 

ROBERTSON: That’s Jennifer Parham-Mocello, an assistant professor of computer science, and one of the best problem solvers I know. I’m Rachel Robertson. And in the next two episodes, I’m going to talk to researchers and teachers about their work to bring computer science education to all children. And how it is marching on in the pandemic with some unexpected silver linings. 

[MUSIC: “The Ether Bunny,” by Eyes Closed Audio, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution License.]
ROBERTSON: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is “Engineering Out Loud.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, a team of researchers led by Jennifer was getting ready to start a new program at Linus Pauling Middle School in Corvallis, Oregon. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation through a program called Computer Science for All. The purpose of the program, started by the Obama administration, is to broaden participation in computer science to include groups that are typically underrepresented. 
Working with Jennifer is Professor Martin Erwig, who explained how they thought about diversity when they designed their research project.  

MARTIN ERWIG: When people talk about diversity these days, in particular in computer science, they often mean, or it's often implied, that they talk about gender diversity or diversity in race or other minority status. What we are talking about or what we are focusing on is actually a slightly different or broader view of diversity, which we could call attitudinal or perspectival diversity. So students and people in general have certain preconceived notions of what computer science education is about. 

[MUSIC: Yah Yah by Josh Pan, part of the YouTube Audio Library. Licensed under a Creative Commons license]

ROBERTSON: What Martin is talking about is the negative perception of computer science: It’s  nerdy. It’s boring, and that it’s only for people who like to sit in the dark coding all day. That perception narrows the range of people who are interested in trying computer science, which leads to the situation we have now -- namely, a field that is predominately male, and in the U.S, predominantly white. Obviously, computer science offers a lot of opportunities for employment, so there is a big portion of our population that is missing out on that. But also, we are missing out on getting a more diverse group of people who will contribute to the advancement of computer science.  

Jennifer feels that changing this perception can also have impacts beyond the field of computer science. To put her quote in some context, Jennifer teaches the introductory computer science classes at Oregon State. She’s earned many teaching awards for it. I think you’ll see why.

PARHAM-MOCELLO: I have students who come and take computer science at the university who are not computer science majors. And you know me, I love to keep in touch with many of my students. And, and so they all... many of them will tell me, “you know, I know I don't, I don't do computer science, but that class made me think so differently in my own major. And I don't look at any problem in the same way ever again.” And to me, that's, that's huge. That is so huge. That's the skill that I see them lacking the most when they come into the university, is being able to solve a problem. Even if they come in with computer science knowledge and they say they've been programming since they were 10, their problem solving skills are what are lacking the most. And so if I can help people become better problem solvers in the K through 12, that's really my intent. And so I'm using computer science and algorithmic thinking as a way to do that.

ROBERTSON: Martin and Jennifer are aligned in their passion to get more people to understand computer science concepts. In fact, Martin wrote a book, called “Once Upon an Algorithm,” that uses well-known stories like Hansel and Gretel to explain abstract concepts like algorithms, representation, and recursion to the general public. They have collaborated on using a story approach to teach the introductory computer science classes at Oregon State. And their research results look promising.

ERWIG: The time you spend at the beginning of teaching CS not using a computer is often very well spent in particular for students to feel intimidated and to get a more gentle slope approach into easing into programming. 

ROBERTSON: But they were looking for something more engaging. And then an idea came to them. 

ERWIG: Why don't we do this with board games? And actually, why don't we use existing board games? If we think about existing games, we can see that a lot of these ideas of representation, of algorithms are there. So we don't really have to implement anything here. We can use games. And the other idea is, well, most of these games are well-known. While this is culturally dependent, that's a potential concern, but still, you come to the table and the board, you don't have an advantage if you have a big machine or you're rich or poor. I mean, you can, everybody can do it. And so that was the point where we had this epiphany and then said, “Well, that's a, that's a neat idea. Let's write a grant proposal about it.” Well, and then we did.

[MUSIC: Yah Yah by Josh Pan, part of the YouTube Audio Library. Licensed under a Creative Commons license]

ROBERTSON: The NSF grant funds three years of research, and they are now into the second year. In the first year, they developed the curriculum in partnership with the teachers and administrators at the middle school. The plan was to test out the curriculum in summer camps, but it soon became obvious that was not going to be possible. At least in person. So, that brings us back to this:

PARHAM-MOCELLO: Can we do this? That was my initial reaction. Can this be done? Can we make it engaging and fun for three hours online with middle school kids? Because when we wrote this curriculum, we wrote it with the intent that they would be at a board game, physical board game that they would play together. And that was the whole point of this, is getting them to engage together. But what we did is we found a bunch of the same games like Tic-Tac-Toe, or Connect Four, or there's another game called Set that the kids love, and they're online. 

ROBERTSON: I don’t know if you’ve tried playing games remotely, but one way to do it is to have just one player who controlling the app. Through screen sharing, both players can see the “table top,” so to speak.

PARHAM-MOCELLO: What was fascinating about that is it worked to our advantage because they had to communicate. So one person had to be playing the game and sharing their screen, but then when it came to the other person's move, they really had to communicate about what that move was going to be. In Tic-Tac-Toe, you could say upper right corner, middle top, but when you get to Connect Four, how are you going to say where you want to go? And so now it makes them really think about how are you going to represent those rows and those columns? 

And I think that was actually to our advantage from a computer science perspective, because it made them think about that grid structure, the rows and the columns. If you just say one, one, what does that mean? You have to have a shared communication. Are you going to say the row first, then the column? Or the column first, then the row? I personally think that it was, it was more, more what we wanted then if they just played the game without having to think about how that game is actually being represented. And that's what computer science is all about. Anyway, I was really excited about it. You can tell.

ROBERTSON: No, I mean, it’s super cool. I mean, it's like you have to look for these silver linings in our current situation. Right?

PARHAM-MOCELLO: Right. Right. 

ROBERTSON: So, that roughly describes the first part of the curriculum that is designed for sixth graders. In seventh grade, they start programming using a language developed by Oregon State undergraduates mentored by Martin. The language, called BOGL, which stands for board game language, is what is called a domain-specific language. 

ERWIG: Most languages in computer science that are used in introductory classes are not domain specific. They're so-called general purpose programming language -- Java, Python is very popular these days. So you can basically implement any program in any application area in those languages. And that's fine. And that's really great if you can program in these languages, but not every language is equally well-suited for implementing a program in a specific domain. And we have domain specific languages that are actually very well suited for specific domains. Everybody knows spreadsheets. If you will think about creating a financial model for your next trip, well, spreadsheets are very good for that, right? You wouldn't think about writing a C program for doing these kinds of calculations. And why is that? Well, because spreadsheets offer programming constructs that really match the task very well. 

ROBERTSON: And the reason that they wanted to start with a domain-specific language for board games gets back to that idea of creating a gentle slope for new learners.  

ERWIG: So we want to not overload students with too many ideas, too many concepts and get them very quickly to the point that they can write a program that mimics basically the algorithms that they have designed earlier that represent a board game.

[MUSIC: Yah Yah by Josh Pan, part of the YouTube Audio Library. Licensed under a Creative Commons license]

ROBERTSON: With the students all working from home instead of on school computers, the team also had to switch how they delivered BOGL, because it would be difficult to install a program on the wide variety of computers that the kids have at home. Instead, they designed the program as a web application that the kids can use on a tablet. In Corvallis, all middle schoolers are issued an iPad from the school district, so they knew it would work for their research. But it also turned out to be another silver lining, because it will make it easier in the long run to share the curriculum more broadly.

ERWIG: Every student who was in the camp and now at Linus Pauling, they have iPads, and they have access via the internet to this website. And everybody has the same program running there. So that's -- that took a lot of effort, because the implementation is not trivial and to make that happen, I'm really so grateful to our students who are so clever in using the tools to make that happen. Yeah. That was a, that was a challenge that we also had to face.

ROBERTSON: So, the part we haven’t talked about yet is how they developed the curriculum to be usable by the teachers. 

PARHAM-MOCELLO: The first and foremost piece to this is establishing that researcher-practitioner partnership, because that's a huge piece to this. And so we developed a curriculum with the teachers. So we did not just go off, develop this and then come back and provide this to the teachers. We met monthly with the teachers with pieces of the curriculum that we had developed to see what their reactions to the curriculum was, how it might be changed. Is it age appropriate? Is the language okay? Is this inclusive to all students, those who are from different backgrounds because Linus Pauling has a, you know, it's a dual-language immersion school. And so it has a large population of Spanish-speaking students. And so we had to really make sure that that language piece was built into the curriculum that we were giving that thought constantly throughout the creation.

ROBERTSON: The entire team continues to hold regular meetings because, although they had the basics of a curriculum built, it is still a work in progress. During the meetings, the teachers let the team know what they are doing and get some feedback.

BELLAH: ...what we are going to do today. Something to inject their- themselves into the assignment. So, here they have to build up a representation of themselves from something very abstract to not abstract at all, it ends up at a selfie, so we can practice those- that vocabulary, we can practice those different levels and seeing those.
COLOMER: I’m really impressed with all the slides and activities that Kina has. I think the techniques of … the use of target language and using it repetitively. 

ROBERTSON: Soria Colomer was the one giving advice there. She is an associate professor of education and the English-language learner consultant on the grant. The team has another expert in education as a co-PI on the grant.

NIESS: My name is Margaret Niess, but people call me Maggie Niess. And the students call me Dr. Maggie. That’s fine. I’m an emeritus professor, having retired in 2003. And then I didn’t retire.  

ROBERTSON: Dr. Maggie is one of those people who can’t quit working when there is something interesting to do. And she has a unique background, which made her a great addition to the team. Before graduate school she taught mathematics at middle school, high school and community college levels. In her role as a professor of education, she started out teaching computer science to preservice math teachers. Specifically, she was teaching them Logo, an educational programming language developed in 1967. 

NIESS: And I loved the Logo language. It didn't make it, but it was, it was a good language, could have done well, but the big problem was the teachers weren't prepared for it. And that's what computer science has struggled with since the early eighties trying to hand a curriculum to a teacher who has not had computer science training is... it will fail like Logo failed.

ROBERTSON: So, this is the thing that the research team is very aware of. How do you teach teachers with no experience in computer science to teach computer science? It's a research question that they are trying to address and Maggie is the one evaluating it.

NIESS: One of my research expertise is in the knowledge that teachers need for teaching different content areas with technology. And if that's what's called technological pedagogical content knowledge, which we call we call tpack, and then it's easier to say.

[MUSIC: Pluckandplay by Kwon, part of the YouTube Audio Library. Licensed under a Creative Commons license]

ROBERTSON: Maggie explained that she looks at four categories when she is evaluating the teachers’ knowledge: their overarching conception of why they are teaching computer science and what computer science is; their understanding of students thinking, learning and knowledge of computer science; their understanding of the curriculum; and their understanding of the instruction of the curriculum. She had just finished evaluating the data for the first year when I spoke to her. 

NIESS: So basically what I, we learned is this was the first year, they have begun learning. And yes, that the whole three years of the grant will be designed to build their understanding. And now we know what to work on. We need to work on their conceptual understanding, their understanding about students. And so what this first year did for us is provide us with direction for the next two years and what to do with the teachers. It was really a good process as it turned out. And they're so excited, they had fun doing it. 

ROBERTSON: To learn more about the teacher’s experience I talked to Kina Bellah who you heard in the Zoom meeting earlier. I asked Kina why she took on the extra work to be part of this project.

BELLAH: I saw tabletop games and computer science and they are two things that I'm pretty interested in. I play tabletop games all the time. I teach math and so I totally find connections between computer science and math. One of the reasons I'm a math teacher is to, to show young girls that, ‘Hey, girls like math too. It's pretty awesome.’ And so, dip my toes into the science part of STEM too, and, and represent girls in STEM in that fashion. Yeah, it's been, it's been pretty fun. It's a huge learning experience for me too.

ROBERTSON: Last summer, the team hosted two camps where they could test out the curriculum before school started in the fall. Members of the research team were available during the camps to troubleshoot and evaluate how it was going. 

BELLAH: Well, first and foremost, it helped a ton. I will say that to be in that test realm, if you will, of running a summer camp. It was interesting. We were a little on edge, you know, cause we were originally planning to go in person, but then switching online. But, I mean, we maneuvered it pretty well. I would assume just from feedback we got from kids, they actually had a fun time, which was great to hear. But it was definitely a hurdle. It took a lot of collaboration, a lot of patience and just being open to maybe things not going as well as we planned, but, I mean, luckily they went better than expected. 

ROBERTSON: We are going to switch back to Maggie for a minute because I wanted to mention that in addition to her expertise with preservice teachers, she also has expertise in online learning. One of the reasons she never really retired is that she developed the online master’s degree program for math education. She was also a consultant during the development of the postbaccalaureate program in computer science at Oregon State. So, she was able to guide the research team on best practices for online learning.

NIESS: The work I did with the master's program convinced me that online education provides a unique atmosphere and an environment for learning where you focus on communication, social interaction with the students, and it's a student-oriented curriculum. 

ROBERTSON: She said that the mistake people often make is to try and to continue a lecture style class when teaching remotely.

NIESS: Because if you've always taught by lecturing, you don't kind of know another way. That one seems that that's the best way. You know, you said it, therefore, certainly they got it. Well, it’s not true. Give them some, a project. They learn to connect and work with each other. It's a social part. And seeing, you know, right now in the pandemic the social interaction is what the kids are screaming for.

ROBERTSON: It’s what we all are screaming for, frankly. In our time of diminished social interaction, it was really heartwarming to see the close collaboration between the researchers and the teachers. The experiences Kina gained over the summer ended up being helpful for all of her classes, not just computer science.

BELLAH: It was such a great experience to be able to, like, test out in a way a lot of these online tools before school started in the fall, to where I even was able to extend what I learned over to my colleagues as well. I was able to share a lot of the Zoom functionality that I had learned and how to use it in a way that would foster maybe some teamwork and being able to interact more, engage more online. So it was, it was very, very helpful.

[MUSIC: Make You Move by Ofshane, part of the YouTube Audio Library. Licensed under a Creative Commons license]

ROBERTSON: To be honest, when I asked Jennifer how things were going with her research, I was expecting that it had been put on hold. But instead, I found a group of people who were finding silver linings everywhere. Well done, you all. You are giving me hope. I’m going to close this out with some words from Maggie and then Kina. 

NIESS: I absolutely believe that online education is offering a unique portion of education, that, I think, after we get out of the pandemic, teachers will be more accustomed to the benefits of online education. 
BELLAH: Really the most surprising thing is that it is, it is working well. Kids are making those connections and learning is happening online which is such a fabulous surprise for me, cause it is, it is a struggle. It is hard. And not what the kids expected to be going through either. But, the learning is there, the learning is happening, they're engaging and, in our class especially, we're having a lot of fun.

ROBERTSON: And I’m having a lot of fun getting back to podcasting after a pandemic pause. This episode was hosted by me, Rachel Robertson, with help from my friends, as always. That clip of music at the beginning was a collaborative project with folks in the College of Engineering. You can see video production of that in our bonus content along with some serious sources of information. 

Our intro music is “The Ether Bunny” by Eyes Closed Audio on SoundCloud and used with permission of a Creative Commons attribution license. Other music and effects in this episode were also used with appropriate licenses.  For more episodes, visit or subscribe by searching “Engineering Out Loud” on your favorite podcast app.

And finally, in honor of my podcasting partner in crime, Jens Odegaard, who has a new job directing marketing for the College of Veterinary Medicine: See you on the flip side. 

PARHAM-MOCELLO: And so, um, sorry, I got a crazy one going like this in the background. He must have gotten done with his class a little early. Problem with homeschooling.