Expert Viewpoint

How to Start Teaching Game Design to Get Students Excited About Computer Science

In our increasingly digital-first world, computer-based skills have become an essential requirement for our youth: paving the way for a diverse and future-friendly range of career options, expanding their earning potential and ultimately, their ability to make a mark as the innovators and problem-solvers of tomorrow.

Computer science may be one of the most in-demand skills in the United States, and it also provides an invaluable lens through which to see and engage with the world around us. Programming equips students to visualize and analyze data and develop complex yet intuitive designs; all requiring the creative and problem-solving approach required in everyday life.

However, its presence on schools’ curricula remains limited. Today, only half of high schools currently teach computer science, being mandatory only in five US states, with just five percent of students studying the subject. Part of the problem is a lack of training and resources to equip teachers to confidently teach the subject, with software licenses and hardware also being expensive and not easily accessible for many schools. Negative stereotypes and misconceptions about who can and cannot ‘do’ computer science also severely impacts engagement in schools, leaving many girls and students from underrepresented backgrounds in particular, feeling excluded from the world of computer science.

As a passionate advocate for computer science as a tool which can transform outcomes for young people, I have been working to address these challenges in our school. It can be hard for schools to know where to start, but with the right foundations for CS, resources and classroom approach, we can help involve more young people in the wonderful world of computer science and support their progression every step of the way. Here are my practical tips for educators looking to boost engagement, diversity and inclusion with computer science.

Step 1: Empowering and Upskilling Teachers

Equipping teachers to effectively deliver a computer science curriculum is an essential first step before integrating any CS applications in the classroom. Considering that many teachers have little prior understanding of the subject and are therefore less comfortable with teaching, schools can run professional development programs and workshops for teachers in partnership with their local CSTA chapter. This gives educators the foundational support to understand the core principles of Computer Science.

Once educators feel ready to put their skills to the test, they should take time to explore ways to convey these foundational concepts. One such way is a game development course as many pieces of software provide that instant feedback so critical in maintaining engagement in young CS students. Following my research, I found Construct 3 to be a fantastic choice for both teachers and students. Teachers and students with no prior knowledge can easily jump in and create comprehensive gaming experiences.

The user interface also combines both block-based and text-based programming, so students can switch between the two as they progress. This has proven to be an important part of reducing the drop-out rate of students as they move from block-based to text-based programs.

Step 2: Integrate Game-Design Software for Learners of All Levels

Being a lifelong player of both board games and electronic games, I wanted to create a video game class that would excite students, attract new ones and open their minds to the wonderful possibilities of computer science. We therefore chose to run two courses, the ‘Introduction to game design’ and ‘Advanced game design.’ The introductory course supports students to build a traditional ‘platform’ game, while the advanced course is organized in the style of a real-world game studio. Each student chooses a role, such as coder, artist, musician, game designer and producer. The game teams then work together to create whatever style of game that each team collectively chooses to make.

This intuitive approach to game development is proving to be ideal for students with special educational needs and to multi-language learners. Because our game design software is simple enough for learners who are newer to coding but holds greater functionality for advanced courses, students get to develop at their own speed.

Step 3: Get Creative with Your Lessons

Once you have successfully integrated game design software into your classroom and sparked students’ interest in the subject, the next step is to sustain this interest – and support their progression. One method that has proved particularly effective at Newington High has been cross-curricular learning with computer science and other arts-based subjects. Programming and coding involves incredible artistry and creativity, yet these are not qualities that initially spring to mind for many students. While digital and still art can have gallery shows and the performing arts might have concerts, what format for exhibition is available for game makers, app designers and engineers? We decided to create a platform for students to showcase and celebrate their computer science applications: the Newington Expo of Technology.

Our aim was to create an event where students could take ownership of their learning by running their very own game design project, from start to finish. Taking the concept of ‘Iterative Design,’ with user feedback, students were tasked with creating game demos and testing them amongst the wider school community. We encouraged students to create feedback surveys and observe users at play, before spending time sharing ideas in class and determining actionable steps for the next iteration. This process helps students to develop a deep understanding of the content and calling of their game and ultimately results in a product that is far more mature than the developer’s initial idea.

To further extend the learning, we asked students to not only design their game, but design their booth space at the Expo as well. Students had great fun planning their stands and considering questions such as, “how will you entice players to your booth,” “What is your elevator pitch for your game,” and “How will you keep players engaged?” Finally, students had the opportunity to showcase their end product at the Expo event to their peers and teachers — held in the cafeteria during lunch time to maximize the off-the-curb barrier and expose as many students to projects as possible.

The event was a huge success with our entire school community, and it helped to showcase the incredible depth and breadth of what is possible with computer science. The project-based learning element allowed students to really hone their skills and passion for game design, whilst the Expo promoted softer skills development such as public speaking, listening and communication skills.

The end product was a wonderful synthesis of development methodology, soft skill development, and a celebration of student work. Students were able to bring their classroom learning to life and critically, start to visualize possible future career pathways in game design and development.

The overhead to design an Expo is also relatively low, especially if students have their own devices such as Chromebooks and tablets. We also maximized our use of free web-based game design platforms such as Construct 3 so students could host their games natively in their browsers. For any schools looking to increase visibility, encourage diversity and promote enrollment in computer science courses, I would highly recommend running events and exhibitions for students to showcase their design work.

Future-Facing Skills for Future Success

I often tell my students, “I’m not preparing you to solve the challenges of today, I’m helping you prepare to solve the unimaginable challenges of your tomorrow.” If we want to build the technically skilled workforce that the future demands and prepare young people to succeed, technology skills must be a top priority. Implementing intuitive game design applications into the curriculum as early as possible can help to unlock a student’s lifelong passion and potential for computer science.