University  of Colorado computer science professor Alexander Repenning helps students learn coding.

(Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Repenning)
A team of computer scientists and educators at the University of Colorado-Boulder wants to change the way computer programming is taught so that more women will be attracted to the profession.
 
According to statistics reported by the National Science Foundation in 2010 (PDF), only one in every four computing jobs is held by a woman.
 
The ongoing project known as Scalable Game Design is part of a broader effort to change this ratio and move away from traditional classroom methods that some students found to be uninteresting, girls and young women in particular.
 
Through an interactive program called Agent Cubes, kids learn to make 3-D video games using simple drag-and-drop actions.
 
Project leader Alexander Repenning, who teaches computer science at CU, says his research shows participation rate for girls of less than 10 percent in the traditional style of teaching computer science.
 
Repenning says Agent Cubes is easy to use and that one true advantage is that the program shifts roles so that the teacher and the students explore and solve the problems of creating a game together.
 
This is critical, according to Repenning, because teachers and students have struggled with the way programming has been traditionally taught -- with the teacher simply telling the students what to do and how to do it – through a long string of letters, symbols and numbers. 
 
Using Scalable Game Design in the classroom brings the participation rate of girls up to an average of 48 percent, according to Repenning.  His research has also found that girls want to be more involved in figuring out what to do and why they are making certain choices.
 
The old assignments were boring and too abstract for students to see any relevance to their lives, Repenning says. Students in the past might have been asked to compute prime numbers, for example. 
 
“You are just one semi-colon away from disaster,” Repenning says.
 
The CU team's work to get girls interested in computer science is part of a large scale, long-term project to increase engagement among all underserved populations such as low income students, minorities and rural communities. The project has brought Scalable Game Design to schools across Colorado, as well as internationally and is collecting student-created games in an online arcade.