In this session, we will describe the design process of a middle school computer science curriculum based on an industry-standard game-development software: Unity 3D. And slides for Early Career Symposium: Creating Spaces for Academic Writing
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Digital game design has been an attractive and appropriate context to engage young students in higherorder thinking -e.g., Akcaoglu (2014), explore STEM content -e.g., Baytak and Land (2011), learn basic knowledge of and develop interest toward computer programming Comber et al. (2019), and form positive attitudes toward CS Denner, Campe, and Werner (2019). Embedding computer programming in meaningful media-rich project-based contexts has promise for increased equity: i.e., it helps decrease the gender gap in CS Guzdial (2015). Game-design activities are meaningful media-rich contexts and can, therefore, provide benefits in terms of broadening participation by encouraging participation of underrepresented students in CS Werner et al. (2020). When incorporated into regular curricula, game-design courses help broaden participation by attracting students from different backgrounds into CS Repenning et al. (2015). Block-based programming tools have been popular platforms to introduce students to CS Grover and Basu (2017). and digital game-design “A Systematic Literature Review to Identify Empirical Evidence on the Game Design Framework and Model of Games-Based Learning” (2020). Despite their popularity and wide use in game-design contexts, however, researchers and practitioners have also pointed to some shortcomings of block-based programming and similar “opaque” (i.e., the inner mechanisms are hidden from users) approaches to CS Grover and Basu (2017); Repenning (2017); Meerbaum-Salant, Armoni, and Ben-Ari (2011).
One issue with a visually-attractive, but opaque, CS approach is that while learners might benefit from a quick learning curve, they eventually come to a halt when they reach complexity Repenning (2017). For example, students creating games in Scratch were found to infrequently use advanced concepts like variables, loops, and Boolean operations Grover and Basu (2017). In addition, it was found that, without appropriate pedagogical approaches (i.e., guided-discovery learning), due to this opaqueness block-based tools can lead to misconceptions Meerbaum-Salant, Armoni, and Ben-Ari (2011). Finally, although block-based coding tools excel in providing syntactic support and, thus, ease entry to coding Grover and Basu (2017), they lack support in other essentials: semantics and pragmatics Repenning (2017). Just having tools for only syntax is akin to spell-checking features in word-processing software: they can make you a more accurate writer, but do not automatically help you to produce best-selling novels Repenning (2017). Therefore, we need a game-design software and curriculum addressing these issues stated above. Unity 3D is an industry-standard (Deals, 2016) cross-platform (over 25 platforms) game design engine built on C# programming language Comber et al. (2019); Dickson, 2015; Unity, n.d.). It is popular: it has been installed on over three billion devices worldwide. Unity allows designers to develop games in multiple genres ranging from simple to complex, 2D to 3D, AR to VR. Unity employs a transparent approach to coding: code is in text form and its outcome is immediately shown in the game output. It has a low threshold and high ceiling Repenning, Webb, and Ioannidou (2010): the software allows the creation of beginner-level games as well as full-fledged games to be shared and played in many platforms the students have access to (including mobile). It has real-world and industry acceptability and relevance. Unity can scaffold flow (can be adjusted for challenge), enable transfer (transparent CS tasks), and can be designed to support equity (through gamedesign and other curriculum design and activities), which are important elements of CS tools Repenning, Webb, and Ioannidou (2010).
Notably, Unity is free to educational institutions and students, and does not require special hardware: it can run on most basic computers. The curriculum will be informed by an interrelated network of theories in learning and instructional design, curricular standards, student needs, and the desired learning outcomes the school districts value. Both a previous Game Design and Learning (GDL) curriculum and courses (e.g., Akcaoglu (2014); Akcaoglu (2016); Akcaoglu and Green (2018); Akcaoglu & Kale, 2016; Akcaoglu et al., 2016; Akcaoglu and Koehler (2014)) that we taught to hundreds of K-12 students and preservice teachers in various formal and informal school settings to teach higher-order thinking and gamedesign skills, as well as Repenning’s similar NSF-funded work with the Scalable Game Design (SGD) project (e.g., Repenning et al. (2015)will provide theoretical and practical design guidance. Below, we discuss how the specific applications from this previous work inform our current curriculum design and curriculum development model. A common design element in both GDL and SGD is that the curriculum introduces the students to simple game-design tasks initially and incrementally increases the difficulty and breadth of content and skills covered (e.g., Author, 2016). For example, in the initial lessons, students design a very simple game where they reach one goal and the game is completed, while, in the later stages, they develop games with more complex rules and goals requiring more advanced CS and game-design knowledge. Through such a “project-first” (Repenning et al., 2015) approach, students are rewarded with a tangible outcome at the end of each instructional experience. This approach provides students with an initial sense of accomplishment and gives them enough challenges and rewards for their progress instantly (i.e., Repenning et al. (2015) Zones of Proximal Flow framework). This approach also allows us to moderate or reduce the effects of the cognitive load Mayer and Wittrock (n.d.); Sweller (2019): “expertise reversal effect,” p.13) the software would otherwise pose. By keeping the initial tasks simpler, we ensure software is mastered before m to cognitively-taxing tasks. Similarly, with hard skills mastered, in the final stages of the curriculum, time is devoted to more soft skill activities such as “free design” which allow both flexibility in teachers’ curriculum implementation and a creativity to students who can independently choose the upper limits of complexity and develop a game that they personally value (Akcaoglu, 2016). To ensure CS knowledge is mastered, we will be providing appropriate scaffolding (i.e., guided discovery) by explicitly teaching concepts when needed. Such approaches have been effective teaching approaches in CS including game-design settings (Akcaoglu, 2014; Kirschner & Neelen, 2020). We will discuss the design and development process of our curriculum, and give examples from some sample lessons to give some examples our work.
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