Games for life: Girl Scouts, games, and the open source way


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Two weeks ago, 16 Girl Scouts and their troops' leaders went to RIT for a Scratch-fueled, day-long workshop in game design and development in pursuit of their "Games for Life" interest project. The workshop was the fifth sponsored by RIT's School of Interactive Games and Media, Rochester Women in Computing, and Digital Rochester. The girls learned to analyze games, heard about careers in the game industry by leaders of two women-owned game studios in New York, and spent an afternoon building games in Scratch, supported by a predominantly female group of graduate and undergraduate game design and development students.

The materials for the workshop, created by Professor Stephen Jacobs and his students, will be released as open content at http://foss.rit.edu/girlscouts today so that troops, teachers, and Scratch enthusiasts around the world can make use of the materials. The materials will also go up on the appropriate Sugar Labs and OLPC activities sites as well.

The shortage of women in technical fields, especially computing and the FOSS movement, is painfully obvious to all. Research shows that girls hold the lead in interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) early in their education, but lose momentum in middle school and high school. Providing girls with opportunities to engage in a range of activities like introductions to programming through game design and development is one approach to keeping them interested and active with STEM. In recent years the Girl Scouts have been actively extending their efforts to provide STEM opportunities, programming and Interest projects to their scouts.

The Girl Scouts is a global organization that has been "building girls of courage, confidence, and character to make the world a better place" for more than 100 years. Regional and local troops conduct a variety of educational, humanitarian, and community service functions to serve and fund this purpose. Girls are incentivized with a system of patches and interest projects for each level of scouts from Daisies (kindergarten-first grade) all the way through Ambassadors (11th-12th grades). Increasing STEM education and activities affects not only this generation of Girl Scouts, but future generations as well, since the vast majority of Girl Scout troop leaders were Scouts themselves. The more FOSS injected into those STEM opportunities, the more likely it is FOSS, its tools and core values will stay with the girls. Fedora's senior interaction designer, Máirín Duffy, understands this well and has done some phenomenal GSA workshops and outreach that can be found on her blog here and here.

RIT's program evolved when Jacobs' daughter's troop leader asked him to lead a tour around RIT's game labs and to give a presentation to the troop on academic and career opportunities in games for their Games for Life interest patch. Jacobs did so, and after examining the flexible guidelines around Games for Life activities, saw that it would be possible to build a day-long workshop around digital games within the targets laid out for the interest project, which were flexible enough to be used for analog or digital games.

During April's event, greater Rochester regional chapters, Girl Scouts of Western NY, and Girl Scouts NY Penn Pathways Inc., brought four troops--#803 Pittsford, #44 Canandaigua, #42068 Leroy, and #678 Brighton--to Rochester Institute of Technology for the day-long program led by a team of professional, academic, and industry mentors.

In the morning, the workshop began with an introduction to the components of a game (i.e. its formal elements). Professor Jacobs discussed the roles of players, different types of game mechanics, win conditions, and other game components using examples of common board games to keep the concepts clear and simple. Next the scouts had a donut-hole-fueled opportunity to play some casual web games of different types, read reviews of those games online, and discuss them in terms of the formal elements they just learned about--further grounding the concepts.

The group then broke for presentations and pizza. Tobi Saulnier, CEO, and Elizabeth MaClaren, artist/animator from First Playable Games talked about their careers and company. First Playable makes mobile games for the K-12 market, primarily for the Nintendo DS family of portable game devices, though it is exploring iPhone and other platforms as well. 2nd Avenue Software, an educational game development company, was represented by sales and marketing manager Rebecca Ferraro and learning designer Emily Brenner Stump, who led the girls through a conceptual game design exercise. The presenters stayed for lunch with the girls and answered their questions in an informal, table-side environment.

After lunch the students returned to the lab for several hours of hands-on game development in Scratch, a FOSS, multi-platform IDE that can be used to create games and other interactive digital media. Scratch was developed by Professor Mitchell Resnick and the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab in 2007 and is part of the default Sugar installation on OLPC's XO laptops. The Scratch website boasts over 1,770,267 projects from around the world and inspired the design of App Inventor for Android. Led primarily by female graduate and undergraduate students, this session began with a guided "follow along with the presenter" format for developing a very simple game to introduce them to the authoring environment. The environment was populated by tutorials written by the RIT faculty and students with explicit step-by-step instructions.

So why are FOSS and Girl Scouts a good match? Though they're not likely to be kernel contributors any time soon, Girl Scouts are an analog for our community, as most open source projects are volunteer-driven, and many leads began as contributors. Humanitarian and community service motives are primary drivers of most activity for scouts, and increasingly so, open source projects. Troop leaders are likely to come from within the scouts, and furthermore are likely to become organizational leaders elsewhere.

GSA is in line with a primary core value of open source: community. Having a humanitarian and community service orientation, these younglings are a group ripe for FOSS involvement and advocacy. Events like these can be a small but valuable link in the pipeline that involves more women in STEM careers and open source. The goal is to track the use and rating of the workshop over time and use that data to encourage the development of other STEM workshops in academia that can raise the interest of more Girl Scout troops in pursuing the STEM interest projects and bring more girls on to college campuses.

It takes a village to give a workshop, and the group that has supported this workshop over the years is a sizeable one. Professor Jim Leone, Department Chair of RIT's Department of Information Technology, sponsored the original workshop materials development in 2008. Microsoft Research funded the second round of materials development. The final round of materials development was sponsored by RIT's Lab for Technological Literacy, RIT, and the Rochester Association of Women in Computing sponsored the Rochester workshop events. Our Rochester GSA coordinator was Laura Robinson, Program Manager, Girl Scouts of Western New York. The SIGGRAPH Los Angeles workshop was sponsored by ACM SIGGRAPH, Autodesk inc, and Intel inc. Our GSA co-coordinator was Katherine Poulin-Kerstien, STEM program specialist, Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles. Materials for the various workshops were created and/or revised by Stephen Jacobs, Kelly Piering, Sela Davis, Heather Arbiter, Joe Pietruch and Justin Lewis. All Rochester workshops have been coordinated by Amy Carey of AWC and Digital Rochester, and Rochester Institute of Technology.

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