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Games the key to girls’ STEM education

The gender gap in STEM fields is striking. In grades four through seven, when a lot of kids first start to think about what they might want to do as a career, just 14 percent of girls express an interest in science, technology, education, and math.

A group of industry and academic leaders gathered at Northeastern’s Seattle campus with what just might be a solution to that problem: video games. (Yes, parents and teachers, you’re reading that right.)

Tayloe Washburn, CEO and regional dean of Northeastern University—Seattle.

Girls GAMES, short for Girls Advancing in Math, Engineering, and Science, is a new collaboration between university partners and gaming companies in Seattle aimed at promoting STEM careers for women through the development of educational games. Though the main event is being held in Seattle, a two-hour event is scheduled for 3 p.m. today in 250 West Village F.

“We know games can engage kids to learn, so let’s use games for real learning, and let’s use games to advance girls’ learning, interest, and aspirations in STEM,” said Tayloe Washburn, dean and CEO of Northeastern’s graduate campus in Seattle.

The idea makes sense: Nearly 200 million Americans regularly play video games, with kids playing them for an average of more than two hours a day. And research shows games can be a valuable learning tool, encouraging children to think critically and solve problems.

“We’ve tried everything from classroom programs to after-school initiatives, yet the data suggests we still have a long ways to go,” Washburn said. “A tool that has not yet been used, with girls in particular, is games.”

Washburn is heading up a team that represents the forefront of both gaming and STEM education: associate professor Magy Seif El-Nasr, director of Northeastern’s Game Design Program whose research focuses on designing educational games; Karen Peterson, CEO of the National Girls Collaborative Project; Dana Riley-Black, director of the Center for Inquiry Science; and Shepherd Siegel, director of school engagement for Project Lead the Way. The Institute for Systems Biology, the National Girls Collaborative Project, and Northeastern University—Seattle are co-sponsoring the initiative.

Associate professor Magy Seif El-Nasr, director of Northeastern’s Game Design Program whose research focuses on designing educational games, is a leader on the Girls GAMES initiative.

Working with Seattle-area universities and some of the 350 gaming companies based in and around Seattle, Washburn believes the initiative can make a difference in guiding talented students into fields critical to our nation’s economy but which are historically male-dominated.

The goal, though, isn’t to develop a game that’s purely educational. Those, Washburn said, are so notoriously dull that the gaming industry has all but abandoned them.

“A really compelling fun game is the key, so that is our goal,” Washburn said.