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Girls on Technology

A study brings video games into the classroom to address the persistent digital gender gap.

The digital divide most often at issue is the one that separates schools with technology from schools without. But there is a second technological chasm that warrants the same attention: the one between girls and boys. The numbers are striking: Females comprise only 17 percent of computer science Advanced Placement test takers, 28 percent of computer science graduates, and 9 percent of engineering-related degrees. Overall, women make up just 35 percent of the IT workforce. Why do girls show a markedly lower interest in technology than boys, and can anything be done to equalize things?

This was the question at the heart of a study conducted by Richard Van Eck in cooperation with the Advanced Instructional Media Lab at the University of Memphis, and published in the online education journal Innovate (www.innovateonline.info). The AIM Lab attempted to find ways to engage girls in the use of technology and to see whether doing so changed the girls’ feelings toward technology— and by association, math and science.

Using video games as a testing ground, Van Eck and his team split 92 fifth- and sixth-graders into small groups. The researchers exposed all of the children to various games, including some targeted at girls, some aimed at boys, adventure games, simulations, and puzzle games.

There were some sharp gender-drawn differences in which games the girls and boys preferred. Adventure games had the most universal appeal—which is something for educators to consider when integrating game-based learning into their curriculum. Later, when the children created their own video games with the help of a programmer, the girls became active, interested participants in the process.

The game play did seem to confirm the theory, argued in past studies, that girls’ unfavorable attitudes toward technology— and video games—is simply the result of being exposed to the wrong, boy-oriented types. Van Eck’s hope is that changing girls’ perceptions of video games will make technology relevant to them, perhaps down the road leading them to pursue a professional path they previously had no interest in, or thought wasn’t open to them.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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